Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Oscars: Paul Newman - Plastic Jesus



Paul Newman: Plastic Jesus
[via YouTube]

How about a transition from “Songs about Actors” to our next theme? Here, we have an actor who won an Academy Award and was nominated for several others. A man who by all appearances made the most of life. An actor who appears in this clip to be a musician of sorts.
In addition to acting, Paul Newman raced cars, played no small role in opposing the Vietnam war, directed films and founded a food company, the profits of which he donated to charity. There’s certainly more to his life that I don’t know and haven’t listed here.
Oh, and he served in WWII before his acting career, which leads us into our theme for the coming week: military & marching.
I dug as deep as I could to try to learn the facts: is he really playing the banjo in this clip? The amateur nature of the scene indicates “yes”, but I have no proof. Do you know more than I? Does the man’s resume include “simply playing the banjo while singing”?
"Plastic Jesus": so indicative of our times. Probably made in China.
Oscars >> Military Marching

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Oscars: Searching For Sugar Man


[purchase the Soundtrack]

The winner for Best Documentary Feature at Sunday’s intermittently entertaining, but generally overstuffed, politically incorrect and dull Academy Awards broadcast was “Searching for Sugar Man,” a film about the musician Sixto Rodriguez and the his unusual career. Although I haven’t seen the movie yet, I am aware of the story and won’t ruin it for those who want to be surprised. The music was recorded back in the early 1970’s, but most of it holds up today.

My wife and I attended the Newport Folk Festival last summer, and it was an incredible experience. The Rodriguez story was getting a bunch of press. Anyone who has been to the festival, or other similar events with multiple stages, knows that you have to make hard choices, and we chose to skip Rodriguez’s performance, in a tiny, indoor stage where we would have had to wait on line and risk not getting in, in favor of seeing New Multitudes, the band that included Jay Farrar, Jim James, Will Johnson and Anders Parker playing original music composed for Woody Guthrie lyrics at the second largest outdoor stage. They were great, and I don’t regret seeing them. But as we were walking there from seeing Trampled By Turtles, we saw Rodriguez walking into the festival grounds. Yes, that is sort of like the old David Letterman bit, “Brush with Celebrity Greatness,” but without the writer’s embellishment.

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Oscars: James Dean

The Eagles : James Dean

[purchase]

Where were you on August 14, 1974 when Asylum Records released The Eagles’ “On the Border” album? On that project, "James Dean" is a song written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Jackson Browne, and J. D. Souther. It climbed to #77 on the pop singles chart in the U.S.

James Dean (Feb 8, 1931 – Sept 30, 1955) achieved stardom in films like East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. All three were released within a year of his premature death in an automobile accident. Dean’s 1955 starring debut in “East of Eden” was an emotional adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel about two brothers’ rivalry for the love of their father. “Rebel Without a Cause” was a portrait of youth’s alienation, and the powerful movie (with Dean as L.A. teen Jim Stark) spoke to an entire generation. “Giant,” based on Edna Ferber’s novel about two generations of Texans, was Dean’s last film. All three of these movies received several Academy Award nominations, and two of the three won a few.

The song’s lyrics document James Dean’s lifestyle as a “lowdown rebel,” as well as his dangerous, carefree ways:

James Dean, James Dean.
I know just what you mean.
James Dean, you said it all so clean,
And I know my life would look alright,
If I could see it on the silver screen.

You were the lowdown rebel if there ever was,
Even if you had no cause.
James Dean, you said it all so clean,
And I know my life would look all right,
If I could see it on the silver screen.

We'll talk about a low-down bad refrigerator,
You were just too cool for school.
Sock hop, soda pop, basketball and auto shop,
The only thing that got you off was breakin' all the rules.

Little James Dean, up on the screen.
Wond'rin' who he might be.
Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider.
And took him down the road to eternity.

James Dean, James Dean, you bought it sight unseen
You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye
You were too fast to live, too young to die, bye-bye
Bye-bye, Bye-bye, Bye-bye, Bye-bye.

"James Dean" had originally been recorded by The Eagles for what was to become their “Desperado” album in 1973. Because that project evolved into an album with its wild west theme, “James Dean” was shelved and not completed until recording began for their 1974 project, “On the Border.” When released as a single, the B-side "Good Day in Hell" is remembered as the first Eagles track recorded with Don Felder, who joined the band midway through the sessions for the “On the Border” album.

I once heard The Eagles play “James Dean” live in concert, at the “Day on the Green” in the Oakland Coliseum on June 29, 1975. Although it was hot and most of the 55,000 people there were in a haze, The Eagles really rocked “James Dean.” It was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Some others performing were Elton John, Doobie Brothers, Kingfish, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. When I get some time, I’ll scan and upload some of the photos I took that day.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Oscars: Winona


Matthew Sweet: Winona
[purchase]

Choosing a Matthew Sweet song would make it seem like I was heading back into the land of power pop again, since Sweet is one of the best in that genre, and “Girlfriend,” the album from which this song comes is a masterpiece, but no, “Winona” is a love ballad featuring an aching, very country sounding pedal steel part played by session man extraordinaire Greg Leisz (anyone who can play on albums by such diverse artists as Tiger Army, Avenged Sevenfold, The Jayhawks, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Beck, Bad Religion, Chuck Prophet and Emmylou Harris, among many, many others, deserves that epithet).

Although the song is named after Winona Ryder, it was not written for her. Sweet wrote the song, with its line “Won’t you be my little movie star,” and Lloyd Cole, who played on the album, suggested that he call it “Winona” even though she is not mentioned in the lyrics. Sweet agreed, because he thought that it had the right “country” sound. Sweet has said that he didn’t think that Ryder was that famous at the time, and he didn’t think that anyone would care what he did or that anyone would think that he wrote the song for her. He was wrong. In any event, Ryder apparently liked the song.

Ryder has been nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Age of Innocence” and for Best Actress, for her role in “Little Women,” but she did not win either time. She has had an interesting career, although it seems like she peaked back in the ‘90s and her career suffered after her shoplifting arrest in 2001 (which is strange considering that performers with much less talent have flourished after much worse legal trouble). She has an interesting background—her godfather is Timothy Leary, and the author Philip K. Dick was a family friend (which I only mention because, coincidentally, I’m reading one of his books now).

The cover of the “Girlfriend” album is a picture of the actress Tuesday Weld, who also was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award, for “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” but did not win. After being told that her picture would be on the cover, she objected to the original name of the album, “Nothing Lasts,” so Sweet changed it.

“Girlfriend” has long been a family favorite of ours. I put songs from it on mixtapes that we used to listen to in the car, starting when my kids were young, in an attempt to limit the amount of awful children’s music that so many parents get sick of, and my son became a big fan (it was just before the era of good musicians making good children’s albums). A few months ago, Sweet, whose career never reached that peak again, despite a number of excellent post-“Girlfriend” albums, did a tour where he played “Girlfriend” in its entirety, followed by a set of some of his other tunes. We were lucky enough to see the show at the Tarrytown Music Hall, and it was one of the happiest shows I have been to. Not a bad song was played, and the crowd loved it.

Which makes me think about why I am O.K. with Sweet playing his greatest hits, or seeing a Graham Parker & the Rumour reunion show, but turn my nose up at, say, the Fleetwood Mac, Kiss or Eagles reunions. And the answer is that there is no rational reason. I want to see Sweet or GP and not the other ones. Remember what the man said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” a quote that should be the credo of all critics.