When Elizabeth Taylor died it felt like the end of an era. Something vital had left the landscape. One of our Movie Goddesses, and unlike so-called “serious” actresses, Movie Goddesses are repositories of dreams and fantasies and projections … so that when THEY go, it’s disorienting. And Elizabeth Taylor, my God, she was THE movie goddess. Her heyday may have been in the 1950s and 60s, but when I grew up – the 1980s – she was still omnipresent, not just in her random TV appearances or guest spots, but in her tireless work and advocacy for AIDS research, which may be her most important legacy (and that’s how she referred to it too: “This is my life’s work.”) Elizabeth Taylor was not a nostalgia act. She was in the NOW. The only “nostalgia” about her was that her beauty was so extraordinary that she seemed timeless, or like she should be flying about on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Her beauty was ferociously in your face, and it changed over time.
As a child, she gleamed like a star in the sky. Her violet eyes emanated bolts of light. As a young woman, she was so beautiful your bones ached just looking at her. I love 1960s Liz, jet-setting around with two-time hubby Richard Burton, looking plump and luscious in her go-go boots and minis and huge fur hats. As a middle-aged woman, the earthy side of her (always there) exploded out into one of her most defining and entertaining characteristics. Like any Erotic Muse, she is timeless. She herself is not androgynous, she’s all Woman, but her appeal is vast, from straight men to straight women to gay men to gay women to everyone in between. She’s an Icon of Identity. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. The world has changed too much. Sex-Bomb Movie Goddesses are out of style (more’s the pity).
Photo by Roddy McDowell. They were child actors on the MGM lot together. They went to school on the MGM lot. Their classmate was Dean Stockwell. Just so you know.
When she died, there was an outpouring of grief at all we had lost. It was supremely touching. Because, of course, outside of her Movie Goddess-ness and her tabloid life, she was a hell of an actress. As a child she had a gift. She could project her inner life. Grown-up actors WORK to be able to do what she could naturally.
I’m not sure if you’ve seen Paul Newman’s TCM tribute to his friend/colleague Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s so so gorgeous. He gets it.
My favorite phrase in that tribute is when he calls her a “functioning voluptuary,” which I think nails down her huge essence beautifully.
Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Taylor is Camille Paglia’s favorite actress. Paglia’s gigantic survey-course book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson talks about the concept of Sexual Personae, from ancient Greek art up to Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson. Paglia is interested in androgyny (how most iconic works of art incorporates androgyny to some degree), and how the tensions between the Dionysian and the Apollonian are essential to our understanding of Art. “Personae” in Paglia’s definition has to do with identity, self-assertion, exhibitionism, a willingness/ability to “put it all out there” for the masses. Shakespeare did it. Poe did it. King Tut’s tomb did it. Jackson Pollock did it. And Elizabeth Taylor did it. There are many fine actresses who do not utilize “Personae”. It’s not a “thing” anymore. The movie industry has changed. There are still those who work in the old Persona style: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo diCaprio, Angelina Jolie. Jennifer Lawrence (maybe: still too early to tell). These people do not change radically from role to role. They don’t have to because they are working on the old-school model where your Personae (whatever it was) was the most essential thing about you, your box-office gold, your magic. There is incredible variety within any given personae (see John Wayne, see Joan Crawford), and you don’t have to put on fake teeth or gain weight to show your chops as an actor. This kind of acting is often under-estimated, or mis-interpreted, because the trend now is to congratulate acts of transformation, and how different an actor is from role to role. This makes critics look like dupes, I’m sorry to say. Just because someone wears a prosthetic nose does not make him a good and dedicated actor. Or that his performance is better than someone who doesn’t wear a prosthetic nose. My most recent diatribes on this personal pet peeve are from the two discussions about By the Seahere and here. In By the Sea, incidentally, Angelina Jolie specifically calls back associations with the wandering-druggie-glamour movies Elizabeth Taylor did in the 1970s.
In this 1992 article for Penthouse, Paglia examines Taylor’s mystique and Personae, and puts Meryl Streep on the chopping-block by way of comparison. It’s one of those things where I agree – and then disagree – does it have to be either/or, Camille? Aren’t you comparing apples and oranges? But she certainly makes her points about the problems she has with Streep – AND, on a larger plane, she’s going after what the culture values, what the culture says “Here. This is good.” Paglia resists the Streep-cult, and tells us why. She goes into all of this in her typical autobiographical way. Elizabeth Taylor connects her to the Dionysian impulse. A woman made to be looked at, to be savored, eaten up, celebrated, an Icon. Paglia sees Meryl Streep’s hard-working-ness to be an example of the Protestant work-ethic that Paglia feels is so damaging and prudish and anti-Art. So, you know, take it for what it’s worth. Paglia’s not the only one to criticize Streep in this way. Pauline Kael had similar issues. But this is why I value Paglia: she is not afraid of going after sacred cows, and it’s not indiscriminate swiping: it’s all very personal for her. And also: you can WRESTLE with her. She states her case so clearly that you are thrown back on yourself to try to put your reactions into words. This is what good rhetoric is SUPPOSED to do. If you dismissed her words on Taylor because you disagreed with her sentiments on Streep … then you are missing out on that cultural dialogue.
Later in the article, Paglia goes into Taylor’s various roles (and she makes some wonderful observations), but here’s an excerpt from the opening of the article. (I love how Paglia states that she had “599” pictures of Taylor. Not “598.” Not “600.” “599.” And I believe her that that’s the exact number.)
Hollywood, America’s greatest modern contribution to world culture, is a business, a religion, an art form, and a state of mind. It has only one living queen: Elizabeth Taylor.
My devotion to Elizabeth Taylor began in the late Fifties, when I was in junior high school and when Taylor was in her heyday as a tabloid diva. I was suffering sustained oppression in the Age of Perky Blondes: day after day, I reeled from the assaults of Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Sandra Dee. All that parochial pleasantness! So chirpy, peppy, and pink so well-scrubbed, making the world safe for democracy.
In 1958, Elizabeth Taylor, raven-haired vixen and temptress, took Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds and became a pariah of the American press. I cheered. What joy to see Liz rattle Debbie’s braids and bring a scowl to that smooth, girlish forehead! As an Italian, I saw that a battle of cultures was under way: antiseptic American blondness was being swamped by a rising tide of sensuality, a new force that would sweep my Sixties generation into open rebellion.
Three years later, adulteress Taylor was forgiven by the American public when she caught near-fatal pneumonia in London. She was photographed being rushed unconscious on a stretcher into a hospital for an emergency tracheotomy. This brush with death seems, in some strange mythic way, to have divinized her. A worldwide surge of popular sympathy helped her win the Oscar in 1961 for Butterfield 8. There was a brilliant series of glossy color pictures of her in Look magazine that year in which her melting beauty was frankly set off by the concealed pale white scar on her throat.
Suffocating in the tranquil, bourgeois Fifties, I escaped by studying ancient Egypt and Greece – and worshipping Elizabeth Taylor. At one point, I had collected 599 pictures of her. I sensed that she was a universal archetype of woman. At the very moment that I was rebelling against the coercive role of femininity and modeling myself on my other heroine, the intrepid, masculine Amelia Earhart, I also recognized that Taylor’s mystery and glamour were coming from nature, not culture.
Elizabeth Taylor is pre-feminist woman. This is the source of her continuing greatness and relevance. She wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy. Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist label, a hoary cliche. But the femme fatale expresses woman’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm. The specter of the femme fatale stalks all of men’s relations with women.
There is an absurd assumption in the air that Meryl Streep is the greatest American actress. Meryl Streep is a good, intelligent actress who has never given a great performance in her life. Her reputation is wildly out of sync with her actual achievement. Cerebral Streep was the ideal high-WASP actress for the fast-track yuppie era, bright, slick, self-conscious.
Elizabeth Taylor is, in my opinion, the greatest actress in film history. She instinctively understands the camera and its nonverbal intimacies. Opening her violet eyes, she takes us into the liquid realm of emotion, which she inhabits by Pisces intuition. Richard Burton said that Taylor showed him how to act for the camera. Economy and understatement are essential. At her best, Elizabeth Taylor simply is. An electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens. It is an extra-sensory, pagan phenomenon.
I’ve got strong feelings about Camille Paglia. I suppose everyone does, pro or con. I’ve been seeking out this woman’s columns since my post-college years, her cultural stuff, music columns, book reviews, and then – also – her cultural broadsides. She has been banging on the same damn drum for almost 30 years now: but hell, if people aren’t listening, keep on banging. The problem with a lot of social commentary now (or at least the audience for social commentary) is that it eagerly dismisses those who don’t line up with their precious 21st century line of thinking. (Which then makes it almost impossible for these people to read books that pre-date the year 2000 without being triggered or outraged. I have no use for such people, even when they make good points. I will not concede ground to people who want to limit their minds, and – worse – who want to narrow what is deemed “acceptable” for everyone else. Meaning Ovid has to have trigger warnings, and Jane Austen is written off as an example of internalized-patriarchy or whatever. Of course Ovid doesn’t HAVE to have trigger warnings, and that’s just an extreme example, but the mere REQUEST sets a dangerous precedent. If you are triggered by Ovid, see a doctor. I say that with no disrespect. We all have to take care of ourselves. We have to be in charge of that. I’ve got Triggers too, baby, and I talk about them with my doc, and try to navigate around them as best I can. I don’t ask that everyone else tiptoe around my own personal issues – which are of no importance to anyone other than myself – and that’s as it should be. If you cut yourself off from the wellspring of artistic tradition that pre-dates your existence on the planet … well, just admit that you want to resurrect the “Know Nothing” political party of the 1800s and call it a day.
You see why Camille Paglia appeals to me. In a way, it’s similar to my deep love of H.L. Mencken, perhaps the crankiest man who has ever lived. He is vicious, and he often dismisses things I hold dear, and he thinks women are pretty silly (but he thinks men are far far sillier) … but some of the points he makes ring down across the decades, in prose you can’t forget. Christopher Hitchens, another contrarian, was similar. Probably once every day I think, “God, I wish he were here to comment on this. I want to know what he would have said.” (The best part is: I didn’t know what he would say 100% of the time. He CHALLENGED me. He DISAPPOINTED me. He THRILLED me. I had no idea how he would weigh in a lot of the time. Look out for the writers where you always know what side they’ll come down on. Their work could be propaganda rather than commentary.) It’s not that I agreed with Hitchens 100%. I don’t agree with anyone 100% of the time. I’m always amazed that 100% agreement seems to be the measuring-stick for so many people in how to relate to others. For real? How do you MANAGE that? Do you keep your social circle wicked small? I don’t get it. I have never met anyone – friends, boyfriends, family members, colleagues, revered idols – who has agreed with me 100% on ANYTHING. Maybe we agree on political things, but we disagree on artistic things. Or we agree on artistic and disagree on politics. Or we agree on SOME political things, and veer off on others. Or I love Blue Crush and he scorns Blue Crush, but other than that, we love the same things.
I think the problem I have with that 100% agreement attitude is the inevitable reaction of dismissing someone totally if you disagree with some of their positions, or even one of their positions. “Christopher Hitchens wrote that horrible article about how women aren’t funny. Therefore, I don’t need to hear one other thing that that man has to say.” Your loss. Of course, everyone has their limits: if someone is a white supremacist or a homophobe, then I will ignore everything else that person says. However, there are exceptions, and that mainly has to do with time period. If you’re a white supremacist or a homophobe now, I will not listen to you. You are a Dinosaur and you are worthless. But some of my favorite writers from the past were misogynists to a practically hallucinatory degree. Strindberg would have been a nightmare of a husband, and he hated women so much it ruined his life, but his plays have great value and worth (and, considering the MRA bozos today, a lot of contemporary relevance: Strindberg expresses male anxiety about female empowerment in a way that is practically definitive.) So his views are horrifying and hostile and I’m glad women progressed despite a generation of men like this who flailed to keep them down through contempt and open hatred … but … what, I should dismiss his work as worthless because of this? Nope. To me, the plays are a fever-dream boiling out of a diseased mind in an unstoppable flow. I wrote about this in my review of Liv Ullmann’s Miss Julie, starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton. I have seen productions that try to turn Miss Julie into a feminist classic, a woman martyred by the unfair-ness of her time. It doesn’t work. Because the play so clearly states: Miss Julie is an uppity broad who doesn’t know her place, and is trying to live with the freedom of a man, and we will make her PAY for that. It’s right there in the prose, it’s unavoidable. If you want to know how some men feel about you, ladies, Strindberg would be a good place to start. It’s excellent enemy-territory commentary. Or should I dismiss Shakespeare because his plays are littered with insulting comments about women’s emotionality and weak physicality? Shakespeare wrote some of the greatest women characters of all time. And every actress I know wants to take a crack at “Miss Julie.”
Some of my favorite writers were jingoistic propagandists for the British Empire, including a vicious hatred of the Irish. Yeats kinda sorta loved fascism. Some great writers in the 30s were willing to ignore the warning signs coming out of Stalin’s Russia. Some people don’t like John Wayne or Charlton Heston’s ACTING because of politics. They can’t separate. I don’t know, we all have to work out these disconnects. I find it easy, for some reason. I like Art. I don’t need art to be Utopian, and I don’t need my artists to be perfectly in agreement with 21st century sensibilities. Ezra Pound was a wack-job, and an anti-Semite, but he also did more to help struggling/obscure artists find their light than almost anyone else in the 20th century. Can you reconcile that disconnect in your mind? I get that it’s hard for some people. It’s not for me. Some people find this attitude craven and disgusting, and like I don’t care about, say, Roman Polanski’s victim. Of course I care about the victim, of course I don’t condone what happened but I also love his art. To quote my Dad, “I see no problem.” Again: this is different for everyone. I accept that other people have their own limits. I accept that other people have triggers that I don’t have. Or that some people take these issues so personally that they cannot enjoy the artist’s art. I get it. I loved Bill Cosby’s comedy albums but I don’t know if I can ever enjoy them again. It’s up to the individual to figure out how they want to handle it on a case-by-case basis.
A lot of these social commentators have no interest in Art, that’s the real problem. They want Art to be social correction, and social instruction. That impulse is equally strong on the “right” side as the “left.” In many cases, bizarrely, right and left join hands in calls for censorship (the pornography wars in the 80s a perfect example, where right-wing Christians joined hands with radical feminists to condemn pornography. It was through the looking-glass. As a matter of fact, any time the hard-right and the hard-left join hands like that … my advice would be, do your best to claw your way to the middle, and stand that ground. Even if you don’t know why you’re doing it. By all means, choose a side, but when those sides align … something stinks to high hell in Denmark, and you’d best wash your hands of all of them.)
Camille Paglia has been resisted and condemned by the feminist establishment for a lot of reasons. She concedes ground to biological imperatives, she loves Freud for his symbolism and how that helped create 20th century art, and she thinks modern feminists are prudes and hysterics who hate sex and resist the “Dionysian” (her favorite word) power of the sex drive. Famously, she said in the preface to her gigantic tome Sexual Personae, that if women had been in charge of creating culture since the beginning of time, and not men, we never would have gotten out of grass huts. I know, I know. It’s horrible. But I love that she came out and SAID it. She’s not a subtle commentator. She goes at her critics with a weed-whacker. Or a broadsword. Sometimes she makes you want to go, “Camille, that is SUCH a generalization.” Or “Camille, that is SUCH a mis-representation …” But that’s part of the fun of reading her (same with Mencken, same with Hitchens). She’s gay, but there’s something about her that misses the “deviant” label, because “deviance” gave us some of the most powerful art ever. And so to lefties, she sometimes comes off as right-wing. (Gloria Steinem called her “reactionary” and “dangerous.” Takes one to know one, Gloria?) And to the right-wingers, who sometimes love Camille because she calls out her own “side”, she sometimes comes comes off as alarmingly leftie, because she sticks up for pornography, she bemoans the Protestant work-ethic-morality thing, and because of her open sexuality. Nobody knows what to do with her or how to categorize her (and I think Paglia prefers it that way). Academics dismiss her as a ridiculous lightweight because she throws Led Zeppelin into the mix in an essay about ancient Egyptian art. Or she’ll be like (made-up quote), “The rippling waves of hair in the statue of the Greek charioteer are reminiscent of Leif Garrett’s flowing tresses that made hearts skip a beat in the 70s.” Academics make fun of her. She seems to prefer that – especially because she thinks establishment academia, with its love of French theory and post-modernism, have destroyed the things she holds dear.
So Camille Paglia comes at things from her cherished status as Total Outsider. Maybe she relates more to gay men and drag queens, because they revere pop culture and art like no other demographic. She’s working-class. This is where her sneering towards privileged white middle-class feminism (aka Gloria Steinem) comes from. “These snotty stuck-up bitches don’t get it,” is her attitude. To many women of color, her commentary is a welcome corrective to the “they just don’t get it” feminism of white girls who leave out minorities (without even realizing they’re doing it, that’s the worst part). Paglia sticks up for practical working-class women, women who have no time for the “issues” that white mainstream feminism holds dear … and also sticks up for the artists and prostitutes and outsiders, her tribe, who also find no place in that establishment.
I’ve read it all. I just finished her latest, the wonderful “survey course,” called Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. Paglia is saddened by the destruction of the canon. The canon has its problems and it left out marginalized voices. That must be corrected. But Bathwater/Baby comes to mind, and Paglia is devoted to restoring Baby and Bathwater. It’s “both/and” not “either/or.” She’s come out with two books meant to act as Redress for the way academia has botched things up. Glittering Images, about painting/statuary/art through the ages, and Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, another “survey course” but this time about poetry. Her attitude is: “Okay, if you tenured bozos aren’t going to teach the classics anymore, then I’ll have to step up to the plate.”
And Paglia is still out there, still ruffling feathers (good. When things get too rigid with things you’re afraid to say because of the reaction, alarm bells should – SHOULD – go off. Robespierre and the Jacobins, fascinating though they are, should not be role models of deportment in any given argument.) I loved her piece a couple of years ago praising the Real Housewives franchise, declaring her undying love for it, and going after the social commentators who worry-warted the whole thing to death in think-piece after think-piece. PAGLIA’s was the real think-piece. Once her piece came out, my FB timeline was filled with people – cultural critics – sneering at her. There were definitely some brave outliers, saying, “I’m with Camille.” I, too, was with Camille. It was yet another moment in Paglia’s long career where she took on something that was seen as the most fluffy and/or damaging pop culture zeitgeist thing and discussed it as seriously as if it were a Beethoven symphony or a Mayan ruin. That’s the fun of her. We NEED her. Grass huts and all.
Paglia exploded onto the scene with Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a throwing-down-the-gauntlet moment if ever there was one. (Unsurprisingly, Sexual Personae was on David Bowie’s Greatest Books list.) After that, came Sex, Art, and American Culture, a collection of essays that had been published all over the place, and its follow-up Vamps and Tramps. She covers everything from Susan Sontag, feminism, multiculturalism, different outbreaks of social “hysteria” (these articles still have the potential to enrage if you disagree with her), and then all kinds of Pop Icons. Plus Marlon Brando, one of her main loves.
Some of it is ridiculous. Sometimes I wish she would stop inserting herself into the prose. But that’s her style. She KEEPS reminding us of what she said before: “As I said in the preface to Sexual Personae …” “As I have discussed ad nauseum …” “If you’ll recall, I said this on television that one time …” It’s annoying but it also serves a purpose, a reminder: If you’re pissed at me now, just remember I wasn’t born yesterday, I’ve been here all along, I’ve been saying this shit for 20 years now, and my work is all of a piece, it’s a BODY of work, with a philosophy behind it, and if you keep dismissing me, I will continue to remind you of how omnipresent I am.
Seen in that light, I find that tone humorous. And I get it.
And finally, before we get to the excerpt: Paglia has her “pet” topics, and her revered public figures, people she comes back to again and again. She’s like Lester Bangs, who wrote about four pieces on The Rolling Stones in one year, and in each one he veered wildly from scorn to adoration, so much so that it feels like an ongoing nervous breakdown. And it WAS a nervous breakdown. He loved them so much. He hated where they were going as a band. He was stressed OUT because of the Stones. And he was open about all of those switch-backs in the pieces he wrote. He was not RIGID, although he could also be the youngest old-fogey imaginable. Bangs did the same thing, most famously, with Lou Reed. He loved him, he hated him, he loved him, he hated him, OH MY GOD I’M CRACKING UP. Lester Bangs was willing to contradict himself, to say, “Okay, I loved them. And now I hate their latest album and I am FURIOUS at what they are doing.” Paglia has done similar things – with Susan Sontag, a one-time idol who let her down so much that Paglia wrote a piece called “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” which makes me laugh out loud every time I think about it. The same is true for Madonna, one of Paglia’s pop culture idols (as the excerpt below shows). Paglia LOVES Madonna, loves the Italian-ness, the Catholic-ness, the sexual provocateur-ness, the thumbing her nose at the prudes thing, the destruction (or partial destruction) of a rigid binary sexuality, plus the beats and grooves and the working-class-ness, and all that. But she is also willing to call Madonna on her bullshit, and willing to say, “Stop it, Madonna. Don’t go that route. PLEASE I BEG YOU.”
In “Madonna II: Venus of the Radio Waves”, a 1991 article that appeared in London’s Independent Sunday Review, Paglia discusses Madonna’s music videos, how they changed everything, injected something new into the culture, but that something “new” was also connected to the past, a past that Paglia also reveres. (The past of 1930s movie goddesses, and the past of secret drag clubs, and the past of Dionysian iconography.)
I was in high school when Madonna exploded onto the scene, vaporizing Cyndi Lauper in what felt like a matter of months. I loved Cyndi. I didn’t want Madonna to take over. I WAS a virgin, and I felt like “Like a Virgin” was making fun of me. (Irony is not often a characteristic common to pudgy 15-year-old girls.) I felt threatened by the sexuality because I wasn’t playing around with my persona like that. (Give it 2 years, Sheila. You’ll get it then. And I did.) I basically dressed like Madonna in the “Vogue” performance in her Blond Ambition tour for the entire time I was living in Chicago. It mixed perfectly with the kinder-whore thing I loved from the grunge world. Those “costumes” were actually perfectly representative of what I felt like inside … sometimes the Mask reveals rather than conceals. Camille Paglia gets that. That’s what Sexual Personae is all about.
God, we NEED our contrarians. We need them desperately! Not to agree with 100%, but to push against conformity, to provoke conversation (even outrage), to examine sacred cows rather than blindly worship them.
In the excerpt below, she discusses two Madonna videos, to “Open Your Heart” and “Justify My Love.” Here they are, for reference purposes.
In 1985 the cultural resistance to Madonna became overt. Despite the fact that her “Into the Groove,” the mesmerizing theme song of Desperately Seeking Susan, had saturated our lives for nearly a year, the Grammy Awards outrageously ignored her. The feminist and moralist sniping began in earnest. Madonna “degraded” womanhood; she was vulgar, sacrilegious, stupid, shallow, opportunistic. A nasty mass quarrel broke out in one of my classes between the dancers, who adored Madonna, and the actresses, who scorned her.
I knew the quality of what I was seeing: “Open Your Heart,” with its risqué peep-show format, remains for me not only Madonna’s greatest video but one of the three or four best videos ever made. In the black bustier she made famous (transforming the American lingerie industry overnight), Madonna, bathed in blue-white light, plays Marlene Dietrich straddling a chair. Her eyes are cold, distant, all-seeing. She is ringed, as if in a sea-green aquarium, by windows of lewd or longing voyeurs: sad sacks, brooding misfits, rowdy studs, dreamy gay twins, a melancholy lesbian.
“Open Your Heart” is a brilliant mimed psychodrama of the interconnection between art and pornography, love and lust. Madonna won my undying loyalty by reviving and re-creating the hard glamour of the studio-era Hollywood movie queens, figures of mythological grandeur. Contemporary feminism cut itself off from history and bankrupted itself when it spun its puerile, paranoid fantasy of male oppressors and female sex-object victims. Woman is the dominant sex. Woman’s sexual glamour has bewitched and destroyed men since Delilah and Helen of Troy. Madonna, role model to millions of girls worldwide, has cured the ills of feminism by reasserting women’s command of the sexual realm.
Responding to the spiritual tensions within Italian Catholicism, Madonna discovered the buried paganism within the church. The torture of Christ and the martyrdom of the saints, represented in lurid polychrome images, dramatize the passions of the body, repressed in art-fearing puritan Protestantism of the kind that still lingers inAmerica. Playing with the outlaw personae of prostitute and dominatrix, Madonna has made a major history to the history of women. She has rejoined and healed the split halves of women: Mary, the Blessed Virgin and holy mother, and Mary Magdalene, the harlot.
The old-guard establishment feminists who still loathe Madonna have a sexual ideology problem. I am radically pro-pornography and pro-prostitution. Hence I perceive Madonna’s strutting sexual exhibitionism not as cheapness or triviality but as the full, florid expression of the whore’s ancient rule over men. Incompetent amateurs have given prostitution a bad name. In my university office in Philadelphia hangs a pagan shrine: a life-size full-color cardboard display of Joanne Whaley-Kilmer and Bridget Fonda naughtily smiling in scanty, skintight gowns as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies in the film Scandal. I tell visitors it is “my political science exhibit.” For me, the Profumo affair symbolizes the evanescence of male government compared to woman’s cosmic power.
In a number of videos, Madonna has played with bisexual innuendos, reaching their culmination in the solemn woman-to-woman kiss of “Justify My Love,” a deliciously decadent sarabande of transvestite and sadomasochistic personae that was banned by MTV. Madonna is again pioneering here, this time in restoring lesbian eroticism to the continuum of heterosexual response, from which it was unfortunately removed twenty years ago by lesbian feminist separatists of the most boring, humorless, strident kind. “Justify My Love” springs from the sophisticated European art films of the Fifties and Sixties that shaped my sexual imagination in college. It shows bisexuality and all experimentation as a liberation from false, narrow categories.
“Describe at least one rehearsal of Three Sisters for me. Isn’t there anything which needs adding or subtracting? Are you acting well, my darling? But watch out now! Don’t pull a sad face in the first act. Serious, yes, but not sad. People who had long carried a grief within themselves and have become accustomed to it only whistle and frequently withdraw into themselves. So you can often be thoughtfully withdrawn on stage during conversations. Do you see?”
— Anton Chekhov, letter to actress (and wife) Olga Knipper
January 2, 1901
Something very interesting happened the first time I did Paulina in The Sea Gull. She comes to them in the third act, and says, “Here are the plums for the journey.” And when I was researching it I thought, why is she giving him plums for the journey? It always seemed like she was a batty person! And then I began reading what it was like to go on a journey then. There was a long time on the train, it was very difficult, the food was very bad, people would get diarrhea, constipation. And when I read that I knew what it was! Bowel movements! So, I mean, I could play that! That’s something that’s a private thing, you don’t announce it to everyone. I mean, if I came up to you and you were going on a trip and I said, “Here’s some Ex-Lax,” I wouldn’t make a big announcement! I would try to be confidential about it. So that helped me with how the moment should be acted. But even then, I thought the audience doesn’t know this, they don’t know that that’s what plums are about. The line should be prunes! An audience will know prunes.
Now the word in the text is plums, there’s no getting around it, the specific literal translation was “plums”. At least that’s what I was told again and again by Kevin McCarthy. Because Kevin had been in that production with Mira Rostova, he considered himself the big Chekhov expert among us. He didn’t think it should be changed. As usual I didn’t go up to Nikos and say, “Listen, I think we should change this, blah blah blah.” I just did it one day in rehearsal. Nikos fell over with laughter! Kevin was apoplectic. But I felt – it’s not the specific word, that’s true, but this is the spirit of it, this is what’s intended, this is what Chekhov wants the audience to know the woman is doing.
Nikos waited till Kevin had given me my scolding and left the room and then he came over and said, “Keep it in.”
Amy Irving and Christopher Walken, “The Three Sisters”
Interview with Olympia Dukakis:
I remember my brother and I came to New York when I was in college and saw The Sea Gull with Maureen Stapleton as Masha. That was the one with Mira Rostova as Nina. And in this production, when Nina said to Trigorin, “Do you think I ought to be an actress,” people in the audience, more than one, yelled, “No!” Unbelievable!
But in that production, Stapleton was, like, on the edge. I still remember the very first cross she made across the proscenium, trailed by Medvedenko, just barely enduring him, and finally he says the line, “Why do you always wear black?” And she says, “I’m in mourning for my life.” She said this like: “Oh my God, I’ve got this creep following me, asking me questions!” You could see that it was funny, but underneath there was a motor running, the clock was running here. Time is running out on these people.
Interview with Laila Robins:
[Christopher Walken] did something wonderful in that scene [in Ivanov]. Sasha has a line: “Exactly, that’s just what you need, to break something, smash something.” And Chris did this brilliant thing where he then took a pencil and broke it in half. When she says “break something” I feel that Sasha means for him to throw a vase or a chair or something like that! But Chris just did this little, impotent gesture which was so hilarious. And then his next line is, “You’re funny.” I felt every night when Chris said, “You’re funny,” it was really heartfelt. It was like he was looking at my terror as an actress and saying, “You’re funny!”
Dianne Wiest and Christopher Walken, “Ivanov.” I think Walken has played that role 5 times or something like that.
Interview with Christopher Walken
JEAN HACKETT: What was the process with Ivanov?
CHRISTOPHER WALKEN: I loved doing that. I’d like to do that again, actually. It’s a much better evening than it’s given credit for.
HACKETT: What happens with that man? It seems like he starts from a place of complete despair and then just goes lower and lower.
WALKEN: Yeah, but, I mean, he’s so funny. There’s a scene in it where I think he stands on stage and doesn’t speak for about 15 minutes. The party scene in the second act. He says nothing, he just stands there and watches everybody. And I used to get a lot of laughs in that scene. He’s so ridiculous!
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Trigorin and Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina in “The Seagull”
Interview with director Nikos Psacharopoulos on a scene in Act III of The Cherry Orchard between Mme. Raneskayeva and Trofimov:
There is a great sense of frivolity to this scene. Life catches up with you and you ridicule yourself. You have to allow yourself to go very high and very low. These are people who take their feelings and elevate them and manipulate them but finally the feelings catch up with them and take them to unexpected places. And then, allow the distractions to come in, the distractions of life, deal with what life brings you in the middle of all that’s going on inside. It’s as if Chekhov brings something almost Chaplinesque to this! It requires the emotional ability to drop one thing and pick up another and go any which way – but, underneath, your great need is still there. Break the parts of each scene up and rehearse them separately and you’ll find that.
1. In 2001, I waited in line (overnight, sleeping in Central Park) for free tickets to Mike Nichols’ The Seagull (starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden … is that compelling enough for you?) The experience of standing in line for that long – the longest I have ever stood (or sat, or lay down) in line – got me thinking about what standing in line does to human beings, how it changes them. And all for Chekhov. If you’re up for a long comic essay about that experience, here it is: The Line.
2. I reviewed the 1999 film adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, starring Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates for Fandor. Got to utilize my Chekhov obsession for the greater good. And the film is quite fascinating. Highly recommend it. Here’s my review: Laughing at Oblivion: Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
And now: a poem.
Chocolates by Lewis Simpson
Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, “Do you like chocolates?”
They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, “Yes.”
“Tell me,” he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
“what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?”
The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,
but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.
As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.
In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
And finally, the man himself:
The demand is made that the hero and the heroine should be dramatically effective. But in life people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, or running after woman or men, or talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage.
Stephen King is a famous sports fan, of course, devoted to his regional teams. His books are filled with references to the Red Sox, the Bruins, the Celtics, the Patriots … the Quadruplicate-Franchise that make up our culture ’round these here parts. He throws out the first pitch at Fenway. He sits in the stands at Fenway, dressed in Red Sox garb, reading a book, glancing up at the field. He is obsessive, but his obsession doesn’t need to be watched over, the flame burns all on its own. I suppose that’s true of sports fans everywhere, in every region, but there’s something about New England sports, maybe because we’re all so crowded together geographically, we can’t get away from one another, and when we gather up at places like Fenway it’s like a family reunion. You participate, but you also withstand it. It’s frenzied, and yet also “over it.” I’m sure other New England sports fans know what I’m talking about.
King and novelist Stewart O’Nan were partners-in-crime during the insanely suspenseful (so suspenseful I was afraid some of my elderly uncles would have heart attacks) 2004 Red Sox season. They emailed back and forth every day, sharing theories, reactions. Of course, those email exchanges were eventually published in a book, the hugely entertaining Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. This is not a book for amateurs, or for people who don’t understand baseball. I suppose it could be seen as a curiosity, a relic saying “This is what Red Sox fans discussed during 2004.” But still. It’s a book for experts. It’s a book for people already up to speed. I’ve been meaning to read it again. I like King’s sections better than O’Nan’s sections, King is a bit more plain-spoken (sometimes arc-ing up into the emotional, the transcendent – as every Red Sox fan did in August/September/October of 2004).
While sports sometimes come center stage in King’s novels, more often than not it plays as background noise, hearing the game on the radio, reading the sports page, Little League games as background for horror in Maine, etc. It’s fun to read Faithful because you know King has been wanting to get that in detail for a long long time. Off comes the leash. And suddenly ALL he talks about is sports, and it’s refreshing to hear him.
One of my favorite peripheral “sports” sections in a work by Stephen King is the tangential description in Under the Dome of a high school basketball star, a girl named Hanna Compton. It doesn’t have anything to do with the plot of the book itself. It is there to enrich our understanding of one particular character and his memories of Hanna Compton. It’s one of my favorite passages in all of King’s work (and I’ve read most of it), because he understands it so well. In it is the entire world of small-town life, where the high school sports teams provide entertainment, where everyone goes to the games, even people who don’t have kids in school there. Because what else are you gonna do in a small town? (I grew up in such a small town. Maybe that’s why it rings so true. The IMPORTANCE of local sports teams, even if the players are all only 15 years old.) I also love the passage because I can feel Stephen King almost swept away by his own invention, by his own memories of high school sports (as a kid and as a parent). It’s so much a tangent, it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, but King really develops it. He’s onto something. Here’s the Hanna Compton excerpt.
Moving on: I had never read Stephen King’s lengthy essay called “Head Down” that appeared in The New Yorker in 1990. I read it for the first time when I got this anthology. And there, you can feel the genesis of that Hanna Compton excerpt, something that’s there in a lot of his work, but here he goes autobiographical with it. “Head Down” tells the story of Stephen King following the 1989 season of his son’s Little League team, Bangor West. (King often wears Bangor West sweatshirts.)
In “Head Down,” King follows that season as though he’s a sports-writer working the beat, as though these are Major Leaguers, and not 12-year-olds. The team was scrappy, not considered contenders, but they ended up getting all the way to the State Championships. After that they moved on to the Regional Championships. (My brother was on one of “those” soccer teams when he was 12 years old, and the excitement took over our household for two months straight. Could this team of pipsqueaks … go all the way to the top?? And I’ll tell you what: as described in the excerpt below, my brother and his old teammates who went through that together, share a special bond to this day. Three of them ended up being at my sister’s wedding, including my brother, and they did a drunken toast to that old soccer team they were on when they were kids.) King traveled with the team, wrote about what baseball was like when played by 12-year-olders (some of the funnest sections of the piece: all the errors, stuff that would never happen in the Major Leagues, are just a part of the game. King has to get used to it.) There’s one little guy who’s a pitcher, who seems to have a strategy in his mind and an arm to match. Rare in Little League. King studies him like a hawk. He takes it all so seriously that you forget these players are middle-schoolers, and at one point the coach (who takes on huge status in the essay) says to King, “You gotta remember. They’re 12.”
The coach is a guy named Dave Mansfield (who was nominated amateur coach of the year by the Baseball Federation). He keeps the guys focused, he yells encouragement and correction, and he’s not afraid to get Herb-Brooks-in-the-locker-room-before-the-Olympics by the time they get to the Regionals. He wants these boys to know they did their best and they have to DECIDE to do their best.
The whole thing is extremely touching. Great baseball writing, but great as well in that Stephen King way, of having an ear for how people really talk, a feel for atmosphere, and a great sense of how different communities set themselves up. The world of Little League is of the ultimate importance to everyone who participates in it. It’s great for the kids, the adults are invested, the parents/friends/siblings come to watch the games … it’s a full-spectrum community experience. King captures that.
I played Little League. And this was before they created separate Leagues for girls. I was the only girl on my Little League team. I was 10, 11 years old. And I’m still not sure where I had the guts for that. But I loved baseball, I wanted to play. Okay, no Girls League? I’m joining the Boys. My own team-mates treated me equally, they were my friends from school, but the teams opposite us treated me like shit, cat-calling and not taking me seriously. They made huge shows of swaggering practically into the infield every time I was at bat. Little did they know, I was a slugger. I couldn’t field for shit, that’s for sure, but I could HIT. I never struck out. I always got at least to first base. Hand-eye, baby, hand-eye. My batting average was one of the best on the team. And through the summer, that’s what you’d do. You’d play baseball. Your parents would come watch. You’d horse around afterwards. You’d have baseball practice. You’d work hard on your swing. You’d practice fielding grounders. You were 11 years old. I’m very glad I had that experience.
Most of the essay (over 50 pages long) features long conversations about baseball and how the rules have to be bent a little bit at the Little League level in order for a game to happen at all. And what it’s like to have pitchers dissolve in tears on the mound, etc. It also describes the suspenseful buildup of a baseball season, where a team suddenly finds itself champions, far beyond the level they expected, district, State, Region (maybe? fingers crossed?).
But the excerpt below goes macro.
Stephen King watches the boys practice on a new field, and asks Dave the coach what he thinks the boys will take with them from their Little League experience.
Sentimental? You betcha. Baseball is one of the most openly sentimental of sports. So sentimental it can get downright soggy. But that’s the gig. That’s also why there’s a need for a gigantic Anthology like this one.
“Look at them,” Dave says, still smiling. Something in that smile suggests he may be reading my mind. “Take a good look.”
I do. There are perhaps half a dozen of them on the bench, still laughing and telling junior high school war stories. One of them breaks out of the discussion long enough to ask Matt Kinney to throw the curve, and Matt does – one with a particularly nasty break. The boys on the bench all laugh and cheer.
“Look at those two guys,” Dave said, pointing. “One of them comes from a good home. The other one, not so good.” He tosses some sunflower seeds into his mouth and then indicates another boy. “Or that one. He was born in one of the worst sections of Boston. Do you think he’d know a kid like Matt Kinney or Kevin Rochefort, if it wasn’t for Little League? They won’t be in the same classes at junior high, wouldn’t talk to each other in the halls, wouldn’t have the slightest idea the other one was alive.”
Matt throws another curve, this one so nasty J.J. can’t handle it. It rolls all the way to the backstop, and as J.J. gets up and trots after it the boys on the bench cheer again.
“But this changes all that,” Dave says. “These boys have played together and won their district together. Some come from families that are well-to-do, and there’s a couple from families as poor as used dishwater, but when they put on the uniform and cross the chalk they leave all that on the other side. Your school grades can’t help you between the chalk, or what your parents do, or what they don’t do. Between the chalk, what happens is the kids’ business. They tend it, too, as well as they can. All the rest -” Dave makes a shooing gesture with one hand. “All left behind. And they know it, too. Just look at them if you don’t believe me, because the proof is right there.”
I look across the field and see my own kid and one of the boys Dave has mentioned sitting side by side, heads together, talking something over seriously. They look at each other in amazement, then break out laughing.
“They played together,” Dave repeats. “They practiced together, day after day, and that’s probably even more important than the games. Now they’re going into the State Tournament. They’ve even got a chance to win it. I don’t think they will, but that doesn’t matter. They’re going to be there, and that’s enough. Even if Lewiston knocks them out in the first round, that’s enough. Because it’s something they did together between those chalk lines. They’re going to remember that. They’re going to remember how that felt.”
“Between the chalk,” I say, and all at once I get it – the penny drops. Dave Mansfield believes this old chestnut. Not only that, but he can afford to believe it. Such cliches may be hollow in the big leagues, where some player or other tests positive for drugs every week or two and the free agent is God, but this is not the big leagues. This is where Anita Byrant sings the national anthem over battered PA speakers that have been wired to the chain-link behind the dugouts. This is where, instead of paying admission to watch the game, you put something in the hat when it comes around. If you want to, of course. None of these kids are going to spend the off-season playing fantasy baseball in Florida with overweight businessmen, or signing expensive baseball cards at memorabilia shows, or touring the chicken circuit at two thousand bucks a night. When it’s all free, Dave’s smile suggests, they have to give the cliches back and let you own them again, fair and square. You are once more allowed to believe in Red Barber, John Tunis, and the Kid from Tomkinsville. Dave Mansfield believes what he is saying about how the boys are equal between the chalk, and he has a right to believe, because he and Neil and Saint have patiently led these kids to a point where they believe it. They do believe it; I can see it on their faces as they sit in the dugout on the far side of the diamond. It could be why Dave Mansfield and all the other Dave Mansfields across the country keep on doing this, year after year. It’s a free pass. Not back into childhood – it doesn’t work that way – but back into the dream.
Dave falls silent for a moment, bouncing a few sunflower seeds up and down in the palm of his hand.
“It’s not about winning or losing,” he says finally. “That comes later. It’s about how they’ll pass each other in the corridor this year, or even down the road in high school, and look at each other, and remember. In a way, they’re going to be on the team that won the district in 1989 for a long time.” Dave glances across into the shadowy first-base dugout, where Fred Moore is now laughing about something with Mike Arnold. Owen King glances from one to the other, grinning. “It’s about knowing who your teammates are. The people you had to depend on, whether you wanted to or not.”
He watches the boys as they laugh and joke four days before their tournament is scheduled to begin, then raises his voice and tells Matt to throw four or five more and knock off.
As I explained here, my friend Larry, when he’s bored, lifts my photos off of Facebook (or stock photos of Elvis, either one), and photo-shops Elvis into my pictures, or vice versa. I never know when I’m going to get a new one. You can see the results in that post above. They are ABSURD.
Larry has been busy.
Here are three more.
Being silly makes the world go round. Besides the Elvis connection and how funny it is, I’m impressed with how Larry finds just the right photos to seemingly “go” together.
My favorite, though, is the one in the previous post, where 11-year-old Sheila perches on the grille of Elvis’ car as he greets fans at the end of the driveway. Sheila, get off Elvis’ property.
Our blizzard is melting, although mountains of hard ice still mark the land. But it’s so mild today that the melting snow outside sounds like it’s raining. The wind roared all Saturday, the snow pouring down in heavy horizontal waves. It was cozy, yet I feared I might lose power (many in my area did), so I had lots bottled water, and candles and all the rest. Listen, I went through Hurricane Sandy (plus the 20 other hurricanes I’ve endured in my life) so I’m a hardened veteran of this crap. Played music and puttered about. Haven’t done one of these Shuffle things in a while and people seem to enjoy them.
“My Way” – Sex Pistols. As Lester Bangs noted: It came from “nowhere” and because of that it reaches a sort of Zen of absurdity and perfection.
“Paranoid Android” – Radiohead. Radiohead is so intimately connected with a very specific “season” in my life when I was hanging out with this crazy crowd of photographers and soldiers and financial traders and poets … They were all friends with each other. And I fell so in love with one of them that it ruined my life for a while. It was like an enchantment, like a spell had fallen over me. To be fair, it happened to him too. Here’s the essay I wrote about the night we met. From when I used to write with regularity about the Men who Swirled Around me in a Tango of Passion. So I had to let that guy go (even though it never really started) and I found it really hard, because I so rarely like ANYONE that when I DO like something, it’s akin to a brick wall falling on my head. So Radiohead is actually – still – too wrapped up in that time and brings it all back.
“Magic Carpet Ride” – Bedlam. From the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, of course. Quentin Tarantino has a way of co-opting songs to such a degree that you can never hear them again without thinking of the movie.
“The Tourist” – Radiohead. Are you fucking kidding me.
“Beatnik Beach” – The Go-Go’s. Listen to Gina on drums. For me, it’s all about those drums.
“Why Don’t You Do Right” – Sinéad O’Connor. The woman who threw away her own career. But I don’t care. Ripping up the picture of the Pope was the most Punk-Rock thing imaginable and good for her. I’ll follow her anywhere, even through her dirge-like religious double-album (oh, Sinéad, no) and her reggae phase (thank God that’s over). “Why Don’t You Do Right” is big-band sound, sexy as hell, and she’s phenomenal, a great version of the classic song.
“Beauty School Dropout” – the Glee cast cover. It’s dippy and very entertaining. They don’t re-imagine it, but it’s still a lot of fun.
“Money Changes Everything” – The Brains. Written by Tom Gray. It’s punk-rock. Of course now it’s known as the Cyndi Lauper anthem of greed. In the QA with Greil Marcus I attended, he talked at length about the song, and the “battle of the bands” between Lauper and Grey that has lasted 30 years now.
“Bliss” – Tori Amos. I saw her at the Park West in Chicago right before Little Earthquakes was released. In other words, right before the Wave of Tori hit. In a matter of months, she wouldn’t be playing small venues like Park West and she’d sell out huge venues in minutes. She is an unforgettable performer – and at the Park West she didn’t even have a band with her. It was just Tori and her grand piano, whom she referred to as “she” and “her”.
“The Waiter” – Bleu. Oh, Bleu, how I love thee. He’s a rock star like Freddie Mercury, he has that scale, only nobody (except his fans) know who he is. He plays tiny clubs with 100 seats. I went and saw a benefit concert he gave at Rockwood Music Hall (all benefits going to Hurricane Sandy victims), and he was amazing. Such a wonderful songwriter.
“Why Wasn’t I More Grateful?” – the great Maria McKee. Boy, can this woman sing. I’ve been following for years, and we’ve become friends in the last 5 years or so (she and her husband came to the workshop reading of my script in Los Angeles), life is funny like that. She’s a beautiful artist. You should see the movies she’s made with her husband Jim Akin, too. They’re gorgeous: The Ocean of Helena Lee and After the Triumph of Your Birth.
“Let’s Be Friends” – Elvis Presley. A snooze-fest from his final film Change of Habit. There are only a couple of songs in Change of Habit (where Elvis appears opposite Mary Tyler Moore) – and it’s a fine film, actually. The first time we see Elvis, he’s sitting in an apartment with a bunch of hot groovy women, having a sing-along of “Rubber Neckin’.” But other than that, the songs are bad.
“Heart of the House” – Alanis Morissette. I love/scorn her. I’ll buy whatever she does. Because there are always gems alongside the wordy-weird-syllable-break songs. This is a beautiful ballad, with some dumb lyrics (“my Tinkerbell tendencies.”) Like I said: love/scorn.
“Strange Brew” – Cream. Perfect for dry-humping with someone on the couch.
“One Step at a Time” – Brenda Lee. Fabulous. SWING IT, BRENDA. Brenda Lee set records that were not broken until Madonna came along. She was as big as it gets.
“One Love” – the Glee cast cover. It’s pretty fabulous. Two men doing a duet. One of my favorite things, the blend of male voices. It’s so rare nowadays and I miss it, happy when two men decide to do a duet.
“Ave Mary A” – Pink. She’s so awesome. What a voice. She sounds like herself. A rock ‘n’ roll star. Not too many show-offy trills. She doesn’t need them. She has her passion and her desire to express herself.
“She’s In Love With the Boy” – Trisha Yearwood. Sentimental clap-trap. Chickens pecking the ground, etc. But it has a certain charm.
“I Am What I Am” – Jerry Lee Lewis, live in 1986. The crowd is WILD, because you know why? It’s Jerry Lee fucking Lewis. “I was just born country … but I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll ….” It’s thrilling. It’s a joke, it’s defensive, it’s aggressive: “One fact for sure: I’ll never change.” Please don’t, wild man.
“Burnin’ Love” – Elvis Presley. The sexually explosive song was a staple in his 1970s concerts, calling to mind the sexually explosive young man from 20 years before. The audience went nuts. This is a live track from a 1975 concert in Dallas which should put to rest forever (although I know it won’t), the idea that the 1970s were a long slow steady decline for Elvis. Bullshit. I’m not saying he wasn’t sick, and that he didn’t give some lackluster performances, but to say it was all worthless is just not true.
“The Weight of a Man” – Russell Crowe. I’m sure everyone knows he has a band (or had?), and I have one of their albums. Some of his songs sound like Irish traditional music (or Irish-Lite), and folk music. It’s pretty cheesy and “vulnerable” but there’s something pleasing about it too.
“Advertisement in the Voice” – Good Rats. If you grew up in Long Island in the 70s/80s, you knew The Good Rats. I did not grow up in Long Island in the 70s/80s. But after seeing the film Roadie (and LOVING IT), I fell in love with the band (because this song plays a huge part in one scene). I loved Roadie so much that I wangled my way into a conversation with the producer at a Tribeca screening, and he put me in touch with Ron Eldard, the star of Roadie, and an under-sung Leading Man if ever there was one. I thought he gave one of the best performances of the year in Roadie. I had loved him ever since I saw him in that small part in Sleepers, when I thought, “WHO. is THAT.” Then, of course, he was tremendously touching in his semi-regular role in E.R. Interviewing Ron Eldard is a pretty funny story. It was one of my first interviews. I had no idea what I was doing AND I revere Ron Eldard, and wanted to make sure I didn’t fangirl all over him. The producer set up the interview, clearing it with Eldard, and then he gave me Eldard’s phone number to set it up. I texted Ron Eldard, introducing myself, and asked if we could set up a time. 4 days passed. I didn’t understand, and was in somewhat of a panic because 1. Roadie was opening that week. I wanted the interview to go live on the site before the opening. and 2. I was headed out on a road trip to Memphis that week, and really wanted to get it done before I left. But … he didn’t respond! I tentatively texted the producer again, asking him as nicely as I could to double-check with Eldard … The producer was extremely ambitious for the film, and loved that I wanted to cover it – nobody else was – so he clearly texted Eldard immediately and Eldard texted me back in less than 5 minutes, totally chagrined and horrified. “I AM SO SORRY. I DIDN’T GET YOUR TEXT, OR I MISSED IT, I AM SO SORRY.” I interviewed him via phone later that day. He immediately launched into another apology, and I assured him it was okay, I knew he was busy, and he moaned (literally, moaned), “You must have thought I was such a DICK.” We then had a great conversation about the film, and he loved talking about it, he was so proud of it. At the end of the conversation, I said I hoped the interview would go up in a couple of days, and because I couldn’t seem to help myself, I added, “I’m headed to Memphis tomorrow, so that’s why I had a sense of urgency about it.” He said, “What’s up in Memphis?” I said, “I’m going there for Elvis’ birthday celebration,” and he erupted, “Oh my God, that is going to be so much FUN!” “I know, right?” “You have to take so many pictures.” “Oh, I will.” And then he launched into a monologue about how much he loved Elvis, how much he had always wanted to go to Graceland (he said to me, “What I love is that Graceland is not this huge mansion. It’s a sweet homey HOUSE, and that’s perfect, right?”), and in fact he loved Elvis so much that he wrote a one-man show where he played the biggest nerdiest most compulsive Elvis fan ever. Ron Eldard told me the entire show from beginning to end, all as I was laughing and asking questions and thinking to myself, “I am so fucking glad I mentioned my Graceland trip. This is golden.” When I played back the tape to transcribe it (I didn’t transcribe that part since it was outside the proper interview), we sounded like two babbling laughing lunatics. But he was funny and enthusiastic and we ended the conversation with him saying, “This has been so fun. Thanks for your support of Roadie, and you are going to have such a blast in Memphis. I’m jealous.” So that was my interview with Ron Eldard. The result of said interview is here. As you can see, we talked a little bit about the Good Rats, and what that band means to Long Island people (and Ron Eldard grew up in Long Island, so he knew all about it.) If the stars had aligned in a different way, The Good Rats could have gone national (LISTEN to the lead singer’s voice), but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, they remained a local band, packing in their club-dates with 100s of people, who loved them without stop for 30+ years. Not a bad record.
“Be My Baby” – The Ronettes. Classic on so many levels. That gigantic background sound, the “wall of sound”, and those voices, pushed out in front. Unmistakeable sound.
“Waitin’ In School” – Ricky Nelson. Rock ‘n’ roll filtered through a white middle-class filter, Nelson’s extremely successful “thing.” The country-boys like Cash and Perkins and Lewis and Presley came from the dirt. Nelson didn’t. He, like Eddie Cochran, wrote songs about sock hops (as opposed to Elvis’ secret “good rockin'” bash behind the barn), and school busses and cute little girls bopping around. James Burton, Elvis’ guitar in the 70s, played with Nelson, got his start with Nelson. One of the greatest guitar players ever, and he made that sound on a Fendercaster. I feel so happy/grateful that Charlie and I went to see James Burton play a couple years ago.
“She’s Not There” – the Glee cast covering the great Zombies song. I know, it’s ridiculous. I have the Zombies original too, of course! It’s a psychedelic funky ANTHEM.
“Rolling in the Deep” – the Glee cast cover. I can’t help it. I love Glee, yes for O’Malley Tribal Reasons, but that’s as good a reason as any.
“It Feels so Right” – Elvis Presley. One of his sexiest performances ever. It’s ludicrous, almost embarrassing. The song, recorded in the early 60s, ended up being in his ridiculously fun movie Tickle Me, where Elvis’ performance is outRAGEOUSLY sexual. Women literally melt, and fall apart. And what is he doing? Nothing, really, but standing there and being himself. I wrote a whole post about that performance.
“Baby Let’s Play House” – Elvis Presley. One of his first national hits. With Scotty Moore’s brilliant guitar lick and its controversial pre-marital-sex-demand lyrics. Keith Richards writes about trying to re-create Scotty Moore’s lick in “Baby Let’s Play House” and being unable to do it. It remains a mystery – even to a great player like Richards.
“B.O.S.T.O.N.” – Bleu. One of my favorites of all of his songs. And not just because my whole family comes from Boston. It expresses a kind of connection to one locale that I think everyone could relate to. It doesn’t matter how far you move, and it doesn’t matter where you were born: there are places where you feel connected, places you call home. I’ve lived in the New York area for 20 years, but I feel more connected to Chicago than any other place on earth. Here’s the song. Enjoy. You’ll see what I meant above: Bleu is a Rock Star and barely anyone knows who he is.
“UR” – Alanis Morrisette. Okay, this is the Alanis that drives me crazy. And yet, ugh, I love it too. I can’t bear the confusion!
“Bad Connection” – Everclear, from their really fun album of covers (where they cover the theme song to Land of the Lost to great success). Lots of fun stuff, including this cover of the Yaz song that was a college favorite for my group of friends.
“Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac. Rumours is a perfect album. Not too many albums are.
“I Love U” – Eminem. I love his “love” songs. They’re so fucked up. Understatement. And they’re all about Kim. He’s been making music for 20 years. Longer. She’s his lone female figure. There’s nobody else. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were still hanging out on the down-low, doing their messed-up thing that obviously was addictive to them both. They’ve already been married twice. Their daughter is a high school graduate now. They’re in their 40s now. I’d lay money on late-night hook-ups, and the press isn’t on his ass so much, so they could fly under the radar. This is pure speculation (and please don’t waste any more time writing about this, Sheila!), but the sheer amount of songs he has written about her rivals Yeats’ poems for Maud Gonne, which also spans about 20, 30 years of time.
“Back to My Music” – The Good Rats. What are the odds. Out of 11,000+songs … I only own about 5 Good Rats songs. Two in one cluster? Yet another great rock anthem, as good and catchy as any 70s rock of the Superstars of the day.
“Twenty Flight Rock” – Eddie Cochran. I love him so much. He didn’t go down on the plane with Buddy Holly et al, but he died in a car crash the following year. It must have felt, to the fans, like a Cruel God was picking off favorites one by one. Cochran was as gorgeous as Elvis. And I don’t say that about too many people. He also wrote songs, similar to Nelson’s (although with a raw-er voice), about kids sneaking around, making out in movie theatre balconies, etc. Just wrote a post that co-stars Eddie Cochran. This particular song describes a guy dating a girl on the 20th floor and the elevator’s broken but he has to get up there!
“Colonel Fraser” – Jerry O’Sullivan. A crazy genius on the uilleann pipes. And as always, whenever a new Shuffle starts, I know it’s just a matter before the Irish show up.
“Geek Stink Breath” – Green Day. As my brother said once, as much as he liked Green Day when they first came out, it always felt like Punk-Rock-Lite to Bren (who had cut his teeth on The Replacements and The Clash and all the rest). And he also said, when American Idiot came out (which he LOVED, and which my nephew Cashel memorized, every last word), “If anyone had told me 20 years ago, that Green Day had THIS in them, and would come out with an album that captured a complex zeitgeist, I wouldn’t have believed you.” And he was a FAN of Green Day. But I agree. Listen to “Geek Stink Breath,” early-ish Green Day. It has a heavy-grind to it, that heavy sound they can get … but it feels a bit stock. Grunge-punk stock.
“Will Ye Go, Lassie” – The Irish Tenors. As much as I like Irish traditional music sung by people who know how to sing, I can’t get my dad’s scorn out of my mind. An Irish nationalist, an Irish literature scholar … he always got annoyed when he sensed the Irish were “jumping on some bandwagon” or other. He felt the same way about the Irish famine memorials. God, he was funny. No sacred cows for him.
“Let the Good Times Roll” – the ferocious and gorgeous and unforgettable Link Wray.
“Emotion” – Brenda Lee. Power pipes. Love her belt. She could make it rough, she could make it longing and feminine. But a belting alto, not a soprano. Makes a difference in sound/feel.
“Here in the Deadlights” – Brendan Benson. Along with Bleu, one of my favorite songwriters right now. I first discovered him because of that iPod commercial years ago. It was “catchy.” I bought the song. But then I discovered more. I discovered so much gold. Best: he’s prolific. He comes out with an album a year, practically. He’s incapable of writing a boring song. He’s writing great pop songs, and, like Bleu, he doesn’t have “name recognition.” Doesn’t matter. He’s amazing.
“Bad” – U2. Edge’s guitar-sound. Would U2 be the same without it? No.
“1816, the Year Without a Summer” – the crazy band Rasputina. Dark intense girls. I think they’re still around, but I lost track of them. I love their songs. Unclassifiable. Huge.
“Express Yourself” – the Glee cast version of Madonna’s empowerment anthem. Nope. It sounds thin, a re-tread. Sometimes it happens. The GUTS are left out.
“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” – Amanda Seyfried, from the Mamma Mia! movie, which I loved. The movie was obviously meant to be a stupid romp, where ABBA is the real star, with fun and energy-charged covers of the songs everyone knows. Criticizing it would be like criticizing a cupcake. Silliness is a virtue sometimes.
“Shame” – The Eurythmics. From Savage, my favorite album of theirs. Creepy. Bizarre. These songs are in my DNA. We listened to it so much in college that it’s incredible I’m not sick of it.
“Victoria Radio Ad 1956″ – Elvis Presley, Southern accent still thick and chewy (soon he would lose it, mostly). This is a radio ad for RCA Victor, special new-fangled record players being sold, with free Elvis songs included. “Hurry while this great offer lasts, friends. See you in the movies when Love Me Tender comes to town.” Yes, sir.
“Last Days of Disco” – Robbie Williams. A superstar. Another prolific genius, like Brendan Benson, although he plays stadiums and outdoor concerts that break records set by The Stones, etc. I love him so much. What an improbable career: how many people “go solo” after being in a silly Boy Band? Ricky Martin. Justin Timberlake. Robbie Williams is like that.
“Apologize” – Timbaland (featuring OneRepublic). From that phenomenal Timbaland album Shock Value. Not a bad song on it. Great and diverse collaborations, incredible songs.
“Rags to Riches” – Elvis Presley. Sing OUT, Louise. From Elvis’ great country album from the early 70s, basically thrown together, but one of my favorites. Here, he’s in Tom Jones crooner mode, and it fits. He sounds amazing.
“Kiss Your Man Goodbye” – The Everly Brothers. God, they hit the spot. Always. So influential it can’t even be measured.
“Angels From the Realms of Glory” – from Annie Lennox’s fantastic Christmas album.
“Paddy On the Railway” – The Dubliners. The music of my childhood, although we were more a Clancy Brothers family.
“Baby Let’s Play House” – Elvis Presley, a live recording from a Louisiana Hayride show. He’s a star now, but fulfilling his contract (the Colonel eventually bought the contract out for $10,000). But those shows were INSANE. I’m almost afraid for the Hank Williams movie, because I love that whole era (and Hank) so much, and he also caused riots at his Louisiana Hayride performances … and I just hope they get it right. If I had a Time Machine, attending a Louisiana Hayride show would be high on my list. That, and being allowed to sit in on the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. When Alexander Hamilton made this insane 6-hour-long speech. With no notes.
“My TV and You” – VAST. I have no idea who these guys are, but this song came on when I was zipping along down Wilshire Boulevard, heading home after the first rehearsal for my script-reading workshop production. It was a high water-mark for me. And this song came on the radio. And I blasted it and zipped along those curves, feeling light as air. So I came home and bought it, and I will always think of that momentous day when I hear the song.
“Keeper of the Key” – Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley messing around in Sun Studio in what eventually was known as the Million Dollar Quartet impromptu session. Not really a Quartet though, Johnny Cash only showed up for a promotional photo. Here, Elvis accompanies Carl on guitar, whose voice aches with country-western sincerity. People talking in the background. Jerry Lee Lewis, maybe. Sam Phillips definitely. It’s also fun to hear Elvis sing harmony, which he never got to do in his real career, being a Lead Solo Singer always.
“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” – Hugh Jackman in the celebrated revival of Oklahoma! Such a simple song, but made for a big beautiful voice. It’s lovely.
“I Got Stung” (take 11) – Elvis Presley, in the insanely productive spring-1958 session at RCA in Nashville. Elvis was headed to Germany with the Army in the fall. There was pressure to get a lot of music down, to be released during his 2 years away when he would stop recording. Elvis recorded it while on a weekend break. The songs from those session have an unmistakeable sound: loud, joyous, innocent, free, with a LOUD jangly band, boogie-woogie piano, the Jordannaires … The Colonel, whose musical taste left a lot to be desired, didn’t like the sound. Too much band, not enough Elvis. But Elvis (and his fans) loved it. Still do.
“No More Tears” – Barbra Streisand, Donna Summers. Classic. Weird, just wrote a post on Facebook about my relationship with a sociopath and how it came back into my life in an indirect way the other night with a random email … and I wrote about the break-up with the sociopath on FB and how I skipped the grief part and went into white-hot rage because he treated me so poorly I knew I didn’t deserve it. Babs and Donna in my ears: “No more tears.” He can rot in hell for all I care. So that’s what this Lady Anthem makes me think of.
“I Want You to Want Me” – Cheap Trick. Yeah, let’s lighten the mood!!
“Blueberry Hill” – Elvis Presley. Vestiges of Southern accent, this was still relatively early. “The moon stood stee-il…” Diphthongs, in other words. Later in the 70s, he turned this into a bloozy-floozy burlesque number, one of those songs he could not/refused to take seriously which is why it’s so hilarious and right. (Imagine a man in his 30s singing this adolescent song sincerely. He’d be ridiculous). So he messed it up, made fun of the lyrics (“the moon ‘tood ’till…”), laughed at himself, and did a bump and grind act that is awesome.
“The Barnyards of Delgaty” – The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. Ah, childhood. Ah, the old vinyl albums. My siblings and I loved these guys. Yes, it was Irish indoctrination from our parents, but I’m grateful for it. The flame and I are going to a spring-concert at an Irish Literary House in New York this Friday. It’s a place I love, have been to concerts and poetry readings there before, hanging out with my people, but it’s been years. I’ll write about it if I feel like it.
“My Way” – Elvis Presley. Very very melancholy and strangely prophetic. He performed it live from the early 70s. It’s really a song for an older man, right? Facing the final curtain? So it’s creepy to hear a man in his 30s sing it. With fame like that, you get more experience than other people, very strange experiences, that weather you. And, of course, even creepier, he actually was near the end. But whatever: it’s emotional, and he means every word, as he always did. (This is not a live recording. I’m not sure when he recorded it in the studio – or maybe in the Jungle Room, I don’t know, I should know.)
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This” – Waylon Jennings. #1. Isn’t that title hilarious and honest? #2. I love him so much I don’t even know if I can talk about it. So hot, so macho, so honest, a true Nashville outlaw, a guy who tore down the edifice, making way for himself, for Willie Nelson, for rough-er guys, bad boys, “outlaws.” Nashville, unfortunately, did not pick up the torch, and country music retreated into its strictly nostalgic and conservative form for awhile with cross-over hits watering down the style even more. Eric Church gives me hope, with his darkness and rage and humor, too, plus his big “taking on Nashville” epic song. I am sure there are more, but he’s the one that comes to mind. It’s not a redemption tale Church is selling, so beloved in American culture: he’s still in the thick of it, he sings from the thick of it. So does good old Waylon.
“The Battle of Evermore” – Led Zeppelin. As Jack Black said when he introduced them at the Kennedy Center Honors: “They wrote songs about LOVE. They wrote songs about VIKINGS.”
“Locked Out of Heaven” – the Glee cast. I’m just not sure what is happening here.
“Up the Ladder to the Roof” – The Nylons. Introduced to me by my friend Brett. This was our favorite. Brett died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2011. So the Nylons remind me of him, and bring a pang.
“Weekend” – Eddie Cochran. Planning a party on the weekend! White-bread, right, but Cochran always gives the situations a rough sexual spin. He’s not entirely safe. He’s definitely gonna give “second base” a shot. Which is why he’s rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m Learning About Love” – Brenda Lee. Again: SWING IT, BRENDA.
“The Acid Queen” – The Who. Tommy, of course.
“There’s Always Something There to Remind Me” – Lou Johnson. Great sound, the slow jazz-y start, then the horns, and the electric guitar plunk-ing, and the back-up girls joining in.
“Kiss Me” – Yipes! Of course you’ve never heard of them. It was Pat McCurdy’s first band, before he went solo. And of course you probably haven’t heard of Pat McCurdy either – unless you live in the Chicago/Wisconsin/Minnesota area, where he probably plays 300 shows a year in regular gigs. I was a huge fan when I was in Chicago, and then we became friends … Uhm, yeah.
I performed with him at Milwaukee Summer Fest for 3,000 wasted people, the funnest experience of my life to date, and he wrote a duet for us that’s on one of his albums. Have a listen if you’re in the mood. There are a million Pat and Sheila stories. Obvi. Eventually, we basically could communicate via ESP. Full complex conversations. There was also a teleporting incident. And neither of us were New Age-y people and neither of us did drugs. I don’t know, it was like we were forged from the same DNA strand. It was partly the Irish-ness, I think. All was understood on that elemental level.
“In Pursuit” – Pat McCurdy. Okay, Pat, get off my Shuffle. Now.
“Operator” – Manhattan Transfer. Wow. I forgot about them. Another college-era favorite.
“Swine” – Lady Gaga. This is on my workout mix.
“Without Love (There Is Love)” – Elvis Presley. This song resulted from the unbelievably productive sessions from 1968, at American Studios in Memphis – these sessions were as productive as the original Sun sessions. A double-album came out. And the songs recorded on those days (“Kentucky Rain”, “Long Black Limousine,” “In the Ghetto” and, oh yeah, “Suspicious Minds,” maybe you’ve heard of it) were all hits, and still get radio play. Iconic Elvis songs. He worked under a new producer, Chips Moman, who pushed Elvis, who made Elvis work harder, break through the “same ol same ol” thing he had been doing through the 60s (except for his gospel stuff where he still “brought it.”) These songs have as distinctive a sound as the Sun stuff, the RCA 1958 stuff. It re-vitalized Elvis for the new decade. A lot of people seem to consider Elvis’ ballads second to the rock ‘n’ roll stuff. (I know it’s not really a widespread opinion, but it is “out there” in the commentary sometimes.) But that’s silly. He was more than just one thing. He had a big huge voice and he loved showing it off. The reason why this performance of “Without Love” works in such a piercing and emotional way is that he brings himself, and his fluid flexible voice, to the table so seemingly easily – he’s TRANSPARENT. There’s not even a conscious “style” here (like, say, “Power of my Love” where he digs down into the sex stuff). He doesn’t need to “style” it up. It’s just HIM. And he goes at it with openness. He’s BLASTED open. Listen to where it starts and then where it goes to! His voice can do exactly what he needs it to do. I love this performance so much.
“Don’t Stop” – the Glee cast cover of the Fleetwood Mac song. Here, they “hit” it (they sometimes miss it). They re-arrange it a bit, infuse it with Glee-ness, the highschool-choir things. It’s a lot of fun.
“Warning” – Green Day. From International Superhits, when I first got into them, having no idea, like my brother, that these guys would have an American Idiot in them.
“Rag Mama Rag” – The Band. There’s just something about these guys, isn’t there … It’s like they converged every different strain of American culture into their own style, owning it, looking backwards but also forwards. Rough BOY music. Love them so much.
“Xanadu” – Olivia Newton-John. Yessssssssssss
“Land of the Lost Theme Song” – Everclear. Speak of the devil. Here it is. If you don’t enjoy this … we probably have nothing in common.
“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” – from Les Miserables. Stop whining. I’m kidding.
“That Kind of Love” – the wonderful Cliff Eberhardt. A guy you’re probably familiar with if you keep up with contemporary folk music. Which I don’t really, but a million years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, my boyfriend and I went to go see Christine Lavin (we were really into her), and some dude named Cliff Eberhardt was opening for her. We were like, “Whatever …” but from the second he walked onstage, we were captivated. I barely remember Lavin (love her, but Eberhardt stole our hearts). I’ve seen him live as much as I can. He plays the Bottom Line here from time to time. He’s a hell of a songwriter.
“Shake That Tambourine” (take 10, 16) – poor Elvis Presley, recording a song for the movie Harum Scarum. He started laughing so hard during Take 10 that they had to stop. He ROARS, he HOWLS, he GUFFAWS, he SNORTS, he WEEPS. The song is so stupid, and he’s giving it his best shot, but his sense of humor was so developed that he COULD NOT DO IT. It’s always amazing to me when I hear the finished version and he gets through it. I think they ended up having to punch-together two takes (something that almost never happened with Elvis. He was a professional. He got through things in one take). But this song was his undoing. He could not stop laughing. Good for him.
“Random Acts of Kindness” – Robbie Williams. Man knows how to write an anthem.
“Rich Woman” – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. Love this album so much. It was one of THE albums of that year. Who would have thought of that pairing? I’m so glad it happened. Gorgeous blend of voices. Robert Plant said that one of the appeals of the project was that he would get to sing the harmony line, something he rarely did as lead singer. I love artists.
“Money Honey” – Little Richard. As outrageous as you would imagine.
“I Just Can’t Help Believing'” – Elvis Presley. One of the staples of his Vegas shows, with the Sweet Inspirations (including Whitney Houston’s mother) providing beautiful backup.
“Hey Louis Prima” – Brian Setzer, with his rockabilly/big-band sound. I love him so much.
“Drug Ballad” – Eminem. From The Marshall Mathers LP. Groovy. “Hey, yo. This is my love song.” Got it, Marshall.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” – Carly Simon. What the hell. No, seriously, I’m asking. What the hell. It’s kind of cute, though. (Used in the soundtrack of Heartburn.)
“Perfume” – Britney Spears. FINALLY. I’ve been wondering where the glorious Brit-Brit was hiding herself. I love it all. To quote Britney herself, “Gimme More.”
“Just Leave Everything to Me” – Barbra Streisand as Dolly in Hello, Dolly! She sings the hell out of this song. Not a surprise. She was (is) a phenom.
“Are You Ready For the Country” – Waylon Jennings. YES WAYLON I AM BRING IT.
“Bits and Pieces” – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. I couldn’t love her more if I tried. I’m so glad I “came up” in the world with chicks like her in the Top 40. With Debbie Harry. And Chrissy Hynde. And Cyndi Lauper. Before Madonna (love her, but the effect she had was catastrophic on these alternative voices) took over the airwaves and re-formed what women stars were supposed to be doing and presenting. I love those rough tough girls.
“The History of Wrong Guys” – Annaleigh Ashford from Cyndi Lauper’s (speak of the devil!) Broadway musical Kinky Boots. I haven’t seen it but I am devoted to the soundtrack. So excellent. I’d love to hear Cyndi record some of them, including and especially this one.
“Bang! Bang!” – Liz Phair, from the album that appeared to baffle everyone, Funstyle. I love it. Seems to be inspired by … Bollywood musicals? Go Liz. The singer who put my Gen-X 20s experiences into words better than anyone else ever did. It was as though she had stolen my diaries. “Fuck and run”, yeah, oops. I’ll follow her anywhere. She didn’t “sell out,” you yahoos. She grew and changed, she’s in her 40s now, she’s a mother. If she kept singing “Fuck and Run” she’d just be a Nostalgia Act.
“Let It Rain” – Ok Go. I was into them before they “hit.” They put out these little weird LPs with, like, 3 songs on them. I love them, and I’m happy they’ve found this wider audience. They deserve it.
“Besame Mucho” – The Beatles. The Beatles aren’t really represented on this Shuffle so far and the first time they show up, it’s with THIS? Really?
“The Colors of My Life” – Jim Dale and Glenn Close, from the Broadway musical Barnum. I love how revealing an iPod Shuffle can be. You can’t maintain your mystique. You can’t protect yourself. And why would you want to? That’s the fun of Shuffle. You can’t control it. I saw Barnum on Broadway in high school, with Glenn Close still in the role, and Tony Orlando (yes, THAT Tony Orlando) in the lead role. He tightrope-walked across the stage, people, while singing. I will always always admire Tony Orlando for that feat. He’s not a circus performer like Jim Dale. He had to WORK that shit. He did a wonderful job.
“Heaven” – The Eurythmics. Another one from Savage. This droning repetitive song was often blasted at college parties and we’d all zone out dancing on the “dance floor” (i.e. someone’s ratty living room).
“Keep Holding On” – Avril Lavigne. Don’t tell me what to do, Avril.
“(Every Time They Play) Our Song” – the great Wanda Jackson. So glad I went to see her play at Maxwell’s. Pioneer. Rock ‘n’ roll. One-time girlfriend of Elvis. A rockabilly girl pioneer. “Hey, they aren’t writing songs for a girl. Hell, I guess I’ll have to do that for myself.” That’s how change is made. You can’t wait for the Establishment to do it for you or to say, “Hey, come on in, we welcome you.” That’s not how you get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
“Train in the Distance” – Paul Simon. Beautiful. Paul Simon’s favorite Elvis song is “Mystery Train.” I think I hear that influence in the opening section.
“Peace in the Valley” – Elvis’ heartfelt hymn, with Jordannaire backup. He recorded this in 1957 after performing it on the Ed Sullivan Show in his last appearance. Imagine that: the country was in an uproar about Elvis’ sexuality. His records were being smashed by Deejays. He was being crucified in the press, from the pulpits. He did perform some of his hits on the Ed Sullivan Show (filmed from the waist up, famously), but what his final number? A sweet and heartfelt religious song. Can you imagine? It would be as if Eminem, in the midst of the furor surrounding The Marshall Mathers LP appeared on David Letterman singing “That Old Rugged Cross,” totally straight, and filled with the love of God. Can you imagine how that would have gone over? The confusion? Is he … making fun of us? Is he … trolling us? But no … look at how much he means it … and so boundaries started dissolving, disappearing. That’s what happened when Elvis sang a hymn on the Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn’t manipulative on his part. Or maybe it was. But it came from a sincere place. He loved this song. Religious music was his favorite kind of music. But when he sang it on the Ed Sullivan Show, and Ed Sullivan came out afterwards, shook Elvis’ hand and announced to the audience (and America), “This is a decent young man” – the entire public conversation changed. Everyone embraced him. Grandmas and teeny-boppers. Crazy.
“Maximum Overdrive” – The Troggs. Strange: a kind of 80s synthesizer sound added, but the voice is still gritty groggy punk-rock, sneering and snarling.
“About a Girl” – Nirvana. Great fucking song.
“Gas Panic!” – Oasis. I wish I liked them more.
“Master of Puppets” – Metallica. This is from S&M, their great album recording of the concert they gave with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Hearing their songs backed by 80 violins, and horns … it’s unbelievable. In the liner notes, a violinist is quoted as saying that in all his years of playing the famous classical symphonies, he never had to change his shirt at intermission until he played that show.
“All Through the Night” – Cyndi Lauper. High school. Tormented longing high school feelings. Being in love, but nobody wanted that from me. Nowhere for the feelings to go. That’s what this song is to me. I found it comforting. I could release those feelings into the song.
“Freedom to Stay” – Waylon Jennings. So authentic. I think that’s one of the things that really gets me about him. Once he threw off the shackles of the past, the Nashville expectations, and became himself … it’s like he never made a false move again. Because he allowed himself to be himself.
“Stairway to Heaven” – Dolly’s famous haunting version. Happy (belated) birthday to one of my favorite artists of all time.
“I Wore Elvis’ Ring” – Wanda Jackson’s kiss-and-tell song about her time dating Elvis. She always credits him with having a career at all, since he encouraged her to drop the strict country-hillbilly stuff and move into the new sound that had no name yet. “He’s why I’m in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame,” she told us when we saw her play. (We saw her during Elvis Week, so it was all just a little bit too poignant to bear. I cried.)
“Another Bridge to Burn” – Waylon Jennings. This is one sorry-ass tale, Waylon.
“Good Night Irene” – Little Richard. I love it too much I don’t know what to do.
“Ou es-tu Julian?” Scala & Kolocny Brothers. This is a Belgian all-girl choir, who cover things like Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” and Radiohead’s “Creep”. I love them. Check out the Youtube clips of their concerts. They have a grandiose conductor who is a show in and of himself.
“No One Knows” – Queens of the Stone Age. This is some of the heaviest shit imaginable, they practically make Metallica sound light-hearted. I mean, not really, but still: HEAVY. RELENTLESS. I was so into them for about 5 seconds.
“Human Touch” – Bruce Springsteen. It’s always good to see Bruce.
“Sittin’ in Church” – the aforementioned Pat McCurdy. A great songwriter, but you’d have to attend one of his shows to really get what the Pat thing is about. It’s like a cult meeting. Here’s the opening line of this dumb song: “I’m sittin’ in church thinking about your body …”
“Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” – Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch. A trio to die for. I love each one individually, and they are heaven together.
“In the Lost and Found” – Elliott Smith. I think of him and I think Ouch, man, just ouch. Even in a song like this, with a sweet melody, the despair is palpable.
“Jewels & Drugs” – Lady Gaga, with a little help from T.I., Too $hort & Twista. I don’t know what’s going on here at all but I like it.
“San Francisco Mabel Joy” – Waylon Jennings. Any time Waylon elbows his way in as much as he has in this particular Shuffle, I’m happy. But I’m wondering where the Rolling Stones are hiding?
“Rocket Reducer No. 62″ – the awesome MC5. “JOIN US IN SONG, BROTHERS AND SISTERS.” Will do, you wild motherfuckers.
“Bad Romance” – Lady Gaga. When she first started “hitting” and taking over our air-waves. It still works. I’ve heard it 5,000 times by sheer osmosis, but I still love it. Another on the workout mix.
“Broken Boy Soldiers” – The Raconteurs. You know, it has a great sound. It’s all bombast, all boy-bombast, but I like boy-bombast.
“Back In Black” – AC/DC. Talk about boy-bombast. Crank it up to 11!
“Late In the Evening” – Paul Simon. I love Paul Simon but going from AC/DC to Paul Simon does not work at all.
“Angel of the Morning” – the great Nina Simone. What an interpreter. She takes songs written by other people, and makes them so her own that she obliterates the original.
“Reilly’s Daughters” – The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. From their Carnegie Hall album. My siblings and I memorized every word. We didn’t even know what we were TALKING about. It didn’t matter. This music was OURS.
“The Sound of Your Cry” – Elvis Presley. A gorgeous ballad, totally melodramatic, and probably hard-core 1950s-only fans were upset by this kind of thing. But my God, it’s glorious. He had that VOICE, why shouldn’t he show it off? He WAS melodramatic.
“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – The Rolling Stones. Finally! Shuffle ain’t shuffle without at least one Stones appearance.
“My Apocalypse” – Metallica. Off the Death Magnetic album. It makes me re-think my comment about Queens of the Stone Age. This is heavy as hell, made even heavier by how fast it is. Nobody’s faster than them.
“Sleepless Nights” – The Everly Brothers. While I love their sweet ballads (those heavenly harmonies), I like it best when they rock. And when they’re slightly pissed.
“Wives and Lovers” – Jack Jones. If you want to get a sense of the psychotic atmosphere of the 1960s aimed at women, and how widespread it was to the point that it’s Official Propaganda, listen to this shit. Fuck YOU, Jack Jones.
“Jailhouse Rock” – Queen, paying tribute to The King at Wembley Stadium. It’s ferocious.
“Duke” – Stevie Wonder. This reminds me of the summer Mitchell and I became fast friends, and we would cruise around in my car, going to Dairy Queen, head to the movies, and then go have breakfast at Bickford’s at 11 p.m. We blasted “Duke” constantly, singing along at the tops of our voices, as we drove around in that gorgeous summer loop.
“You Rascal You” – Cab Calloway. I love these guys.
“If I Could” – Seal. This whole album reminds me of one of my college boyfriends. We had this tempestuous 1950s-type relationship. What was our first date? We went to go see Fatal Attraction, screaming and clutching at each other in sheer terror. Then we went to the beach and made out. Then I drove him home, blasting this Seal album. Listen, music leads to Memory Lanes. Sue me.
“Circus” – The Candybutchers. This is Mike Viola’s band, and how I first got into him (he is mostly solo now, although he sometimes collaborates with the aforementioned Bleu). He’s an awesome songwriter. They came out with a couple of albums. Check them out. I got into them because of my cousins and siblings who were obsessed. Siobhan (my sister, see above) opened for Mike Viola once. Imagine: opening for one of your idols, the person who inspired you most. It was such a cool evening.
“My Fault” – Eminem. From the Slim Shady LP. Yes, Marshall, it IS your fault that you gave that girl all those mushrooms. At least you acknowledge it. But the thing about this song is: He jokes and snarks about this girl OD-ing (he’s being a brat, trying to shock people because that’s his thing), and he plays the girl too … and paints this whole picture of this crazy party where the girl flips out. As the song fades out, shit gets real, and he starts sobbing and shaking the girl, “I’m sorry! WAKE UP. OH MY GOD. SOMEONE HELP. I’M SORRY.” It’s real. A classic hat-trick from Eminem. Or maybe not hat-trick. He pulls the rug out from underneath the people who are laughing as though it’s a joke.
“Black to Comm” – MC5’s 8-minute anthem, recorded live. The sound sucks, the voices are buried, with some fuzz on them, distortion, the guitar blaring on one side … and it’s all part of the sound. It’s an experience more than it is a song.
“Daddy Sang Bass” – Johnny Cash. Real country-gospel. So wonderful and authentic. Cash couldn’t be anything but authentic, perhaps his greatest gift, even more so than his song-writing, although it’s probably a tie.
“I Love You Porgy” – Nina Simone, live. It’s unbearably gorgeous. I have a hard time with Nina Simone sometimes. I can’t listen to her casually. She forces me to “go there”. I am not allowed to skip off the surface of her songs, and just “enjoy” them passively. She won’t allow it. She was a great artist.
“Womanizer” – Britney Spears. A favorite Britney tune. I have no idea what’s happening. It’s all about the beat. Another workout-mix song.
“Mary” – The Death Riders. Cheery!
“Last Hit” – Eminem & High and Mighty Trilogy. Fun and clever: I love the internal rhymes, always half the fun with these guys: the sounds they find in familiar words.
“Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” – Huey Lewis & the News, from their great tribute album, “Four Chords and Several Years Ago”. Paying tribute to the r&b songs from the 1950s/60s that inspired them. Huey Lewis was my first concert ever. Years later, out came Four Chords and … well, I was an “extra” in their music video for the album. It was SUCH a fun day. You can’t see me in the video, but I know just where we were. Here’s a link.
“Jesus Children of America” – Stevie Wonder. Good Lord, Innervisions is a great album. Every track a classic.
“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” – Kenny Rogers. This song is hot hot hot. Of course now OWNED by that dream-sequence in Big Lebowski, but it’s nuts even outside of that hallucinatory memory.
“Let Me Go Lover” – Dean Martin. A perfect singer. My fave of all of those guys. Yes, Frank is awesome. But Dino has my heart in a way Frank does not. One of the things I love so much about Dean Martin is you can hear him smiling as he sings. It’s so comforting. Or, soothing is a better word.
“Daniel and the Sacred Harp” – The Band. I find them spooky. In a good way. There’s something hard-bitten about them, rough lives, a sense of mortality, and yet … the nostalgia running through it all, a love of the old medicine shows and carnival shows and playing little honky-tonks … the off-the-beaten-track rhythms of so much of American life … which maybe they could perceive with more clarity due to the Canadian-ness of some of them? These guys are not white-washed or packaged in any way whatsoever. I mean, just watch them talk about groupies and sex on the road in The Last Waltz to understand just how much tail these guys got collectively. They’re almost shame-faced about it, giggling like naughty kids. But there’s a sweet heartbreaking quality to that sound … Greil Marcus wrote a chapter on The Band in Mystery Train and I highly recommend it.
“Country Clown” – Louie Doctor Ross. One of the Sun Studio recording artists. You can pick the Sun sound out of a lineup. The slap-back. The sense of it being a moment captured in time, nothing “fixed” in the editing process. This is raw and stripped down: his voice. A harmonica. A guitar. No drums.
“It’s Not Easy” – The Rolling Stones. Off of Aftermath. Epic. The echo on their voices make them sound impossibly far away, Rock Star Gods. But with the grinding accompaniment underneath, those simple chords, blues chords. It’s rough and dirty and self-aware all at the same time … one of their “things” as a band.
“Shady Narcotics” – Eminem. With his posse, Obie Trice and D12 and all the other Usual Suspects. Macho Assertion.
“U.S. Male” (take 1) – Elvis recording a Jerry Reed song, with Jerry Reed playing accompaniment. It’s a goof, a parody of the male chauvinist, asserting his “property”. Elvis knew how funny it was, and poured it on. He makes the guy sound macho as hell, and yet also clues us in that the guy is not the brightest bulb. In one take, as the song fades out, you can hear Elvis improvise: “I’m a U.S. Male. I’m an AMERICAN U.S. Male. That’s M-A-L-E, son.” hahaha Yes, if you’re a U.S. male, then that automatically means you’re American, and we know it’s not spelled “M A I L”, so why are you being aggressive about it … Oh. Cause you’re a little bit dumb. That was all Elvis. And boy, Jerry Reed is a maestro.
“I Saw Her Standing There” – The Beatles. Out of their whole catalog, this one is probably my favorite. Definitely Top 5. I’ve listened to it, on average, at LEAST once a week ever since I first heard it – when I was probably 5 years old, I probably heard it in the womb, too … and I am never sick of it. I never skip it. Ever. That’s crazy, when you really think about it.
Today is the great Paul Newman’s birthday. I am so glad that I grew up in a time when Paul Newman was still a leading man (and he was a leading man up until the very end). So I got to experience the pleasure of going to see Paul Newman on the big screen. As an Actors Studio fan-girl from when I was around 12, I was well aware of Paul Newman and his work. (That I would go on to be involved in the Actors Studio 15 years later, attending sessions, taking workshops, involved in the Masters Program that Paul Newman himself set up … not a coincidence. I met Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on the same night I met Elia Kazan. I held it together … barely.) I knew OF Paul Newman, and knew that the white-haired old guy I saw on movie screens had a long long history. I had already seen much of it by the time I was 15. I revered his acting gift.
When he died, I wrote a piece about Paul Newman for House Next Door, where I chose to pick out three roles/specific acting moments to examine just how good a technician he was, just how gifted he was with his craft (and he had to DECIDE to get good: he always knew he had to work hard. He always said his wife, Joanne Woodward, was the real natural genius in their household.)
Regular readers know that over last year, I binge-watched the entire X-Files series, because I had completely missed the phenomenon the first go-round. I watched a lot of it myself, but then, for fun, I reached out to my friend Keith Uhlich, film critic, TV critic, and the biggest X-Files fan I know, to see if he wanted to binge-watch with me. And so began the great Binge-Watch project of 2015. I would go over to his place every other week, practically, and we’d sit in the dark living room and watch sometimes up to 10 episodes a day. He was a great guide – but better than that – he is a great fan. Not uncritical (Keith is a critic, with a GREAT eye), but also interested in what any given episode was trying to DO, outside of what HE wanted from it.
I seemed to click into the series on the same frequency that Keith did: for me, the series was about emotion and human connection and the Scully/Mulder relationship, how fragile it is, how important it is. That “feeling” didn’t click in for me until the first episode of Season 2, when Scully and Mulder were separated, and had to sneak around to meet up in parking garages or whatever. That first episode of Season 2 was filled with the sense of LONGING that I think is the true theme/mood of X-Files. It’s not about what HAPPENS, or what the TRUTH actually IS: the truth still remains “out there”. It cannot be grasped and pinned down. It can’t, actually, be known. Or, even if you do know it, it ends up not mattering. All we know is what we long for. I mean, the whole TV series didn’t end with a bang, but a “whimper,” Mulder and Scully curled up in one anothers’ arms in a motel room. As paranoid as Chris Carter is, that fragile intimacy of two people (skeptics and believers) seemed to be what he was after all along.
If you’re an X-Files fan, you might have seen the Paley Center 2012 interview with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson (the entirety is on Youtube). My friend Keith was the one who did that great interview. I wrote about it here. The “what the fuck is magnetite” moment has become notorious enough to become a “gif”, and so my friend Keith is the only one among my friends (that I am aware of) who is now a GIF. (I actually have been wanting to link to this for a while: Here’s Keith’s review of Michael Mann’s Blackhat – a film I also loved. Keith digs into it deep.)
So anyway, Keith and I had a blast with the binge-watch. You can’t binge-watch with just anyone. It takes a certain KIND of person to do a joint binge-watch. We’ve continued on into a binge-watch of Millennium now, and eventually we may get to Supernatural, which he hasn’t seen, but there’s a lot of cross-over, at least in terms of cast/crew/location, etc. Supernatural often looks like an X-Files reunion. (And if you want to know just how good an actor Mitch Pileggi really is – watch any given episode of X-Files, and then watch any episode from Season 6 of Supernatural, in which he appears. Except for the sense of harassed authenticity … it is two totally different characters. 100% believable in both.)
I started to binge-watch because I wanted to participate in … what is happening now. The resurrection of The X-Files as a 6-episode 2016 mini-series.
Advance word from critics on the 1st episode was that it was “bad.” Keith and I watched it about a month ago (he had already seen it), and I have no idea what these critics were talking about. I suppose, like any good show, The X-Files is many different things to different people. (Supernatural is like that too. There’s an epic archetypal quality to the events and the style, so it can TAKE lots of different emotional projections and interpretations.)
Keith will be re-capping the whole thing for Vulture, and his first re-cap is up.
He’s one of the best writers I know, his style elegant, thoughtful, rich, but even more than that: watch how he observes things, and then contextualizes what he has observed. In other words, it’s not a book report. This is analysis.
In other words: Robert Burns. Or perhaps I should say “Rahbbie Barrrrrrrrns.”
Right now in Scotland, and around the world, wherever the Scottish gather, people are standing up and proclaiming his verses into crowded pubs, everybody chanting along in unison.
Robert Burns was born poor, in the middle of the 18th century. He had a lot of brothers and sisters, his parents were farmers. Yet his father decided that Robert, his eldest, should have a bit of an education. A tutor was hired, and Robert, in between the farm chores and hard work, learned how to read and write. A whole world opened up to him through language. Writing came naturally to him. He started writing poems and songs almost immediately, some of which are still famous today (although “famous” doesn’t quite cover it. These works have seeped into the culture to the level that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets have. Total absorption.)
Robert Burns was a wild man who loved pleasure, loved fun, loved women. He had many illegitimate children.
He was a farmer’s son, with informal education at best. Where did his writing bug come from?
Here was Burns’ answer to that question:
For my own part I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I got once heartily in Love, and then Rhyme and Song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.
Burns hated the climate in Scotland, and yearned to go someplace warm. But this ended up not being his fate: He eventually got married (to one of the dames he had knocked up) and when his poems started being published, in collected works, he became famous in Scotland. He wrote in the voice of his countrymen/women, he wrote in their dialects, he wrote about THEM. It was a fresh and vibrant voice, a truly local voice. He became known as “the Ploughman Poet”. With his fame, he decided to stay in Scotland.
He was prolific. Nobody knows how much he actually wrote because there are probably lots of traditional songs and verses out there written by him which cannot be pinned down to him. As it stands, there are over 400 Robert Burns known songs in existence. He was a celebrity in his own time. The fame he achieved in his own lifetime is nothing compared to the Robbie Burns frenzy that goes on now.
The lyrics Robert Burns wrote have lasted centuries. Some of the verses are so engrained in our culture that we can’t even imagine that one person penned them at all. They seem to have just descended upon us, whole, from Olympus, or something. But no … someone actually WROTE these things.
If you’re wasted on New Year’s Eve, gripping a bottle of champagne, and singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the top of your lungs, annoying people on the subway, you are quoting Robbie Burns.
He also wrote a simple little love lyric, one of his most famous I suppose. It’s so famous that it is hidden in a cloud of canon-respectabiity – but read it out loud: It’s still fresh, it’s still emotional, the emotion is on the page (and remember Burns’ words about where the poetry impulse came from). I love the poem for its simplicity, its openness, its unembarrassed joy.
My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June.
O, my luve is like a melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi the sun!
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho it were ten thousand mile!
Robert Burns died at 37. Over 10,000 people showed up at his funeral!
So I suppose it would be highly appropriate to end this commemorative post in honor of an extraordinary writer with his own words, words we all know by heart:
Auld Lang Syne
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.