Thursday, January 22, 2004

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged

The first two albums I ever bought for myself--purchased on the same Saturday afternoon in the records department of the original Goldblatts department store on Chicago Avenue--were Beatles albums. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road, to be specific.
There weren't the first albums I ever owned--that distinction likely resides with one of the many K-Tel albums that commuted from the discount bin at Woolworth's to my Christmas stocking on a annual basis. (And that made for some oddly shaped stockings, let me tell you.) And they certainly weren't the last Beatles albums I ever purchase. At one time or another, just about every one of the Fab Four's discs have found their way into my music collection--an eclectic selection where you can find James Brown next to Tito Puente, the Rolling Stones beside Patsy Cline, Traci Lords sandwiched between Jimmy Scott and Johnny Cash--in one format or another: Vinyl, CD, even eight-track.

One Beatles album that never made the grade, though, was Let It Be.

I don't think the omission was intentional or conscious. It's not like wandered into Laurie's Planet of Sound, picked up a well-worn LP and dropped it from my hands as if singed by brimstone. It's not worth all that drama. I guess it has more to do with the lack of weight Let It Be, the last release of new music from the group, has when compared with other Beatles efforts. Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road...those were albums. Let It Be, a project cobbled together by producer Phil Spector from the remnants of contentious recording sessions intended to produce a rough-edged, back-to-the-basics album, is more of a collection of unrelated songs, with no more significance in the bigger picture of the Beatles' catalog than, say, Hey Jude or Yellow Submarine (both of which made my collection, but only because they'd been given as gifts).

Let It Be remains a point of controversy amongst music fans, who argue its merits or lack thereof. Did Spector salvage an abandoned project, or did he marr classic pop songs with his formerly successful "Wall of Sound" production style? Was John Lennon right to praise Spector's efforts? Was Paul McCartney justified in being outraged at the way Spector treated his tunes, most especially "The Long and Winding Road"? Did the Beatles go out with a bang, a whimper or merely a "meh"?

I always fell on the side of "less is more" and thought Spector had overdone some of the songs--"Across the Universe" is a simple, spiritual Lennon tune smothered in strings and heavenly chorus (though it must be pointed out that Lennon himself loved what Spector did with the song), and "Let It Be" was tweaked from its single version with added guitars and an amped-up solo that breaks the solemn mood McCartney carefully constructed. (Then again who am I to critique Spector's production skills? I own several musical instruments--including an acoustic guitar, several harmonicas (all inherited from Grandma) and a kazoo purchased for me by Red Secretary from a Cracker Barrel in Stevensville, MI--none of which I can play.)

The result, contrary to the promise on the album cover of "the warmth and freshness of a live performance, as reproduced for disc by Phil Spector," is a scizophrenic effort with studio chatter (mostly Lennon snarking, sometimes mean-spiritedly), which was part of the original concept of engineer Glyn Johns, bookending songs that sound anything but live.

And now, decades later, the debate, long since relegated to background buzz, has been dialed up to eleven again with the release of Let It Be...Naked.

The intent of Naked, it would appear, it to strip away all of the layers Spector added to take the songs back as close to their original forms as possible. All of the studio chatter is gone now, as are two song fragments--"Dig It" and "Maggie Mae"--that were little more than elevated studio chatter themselves. One song recorded during the sessions but not included in the film, "Don't Let Me Down," has been added into the mix, and the remaining songs have been reordered and digitally remastered.

But have the producers of Naked succeeded? Partially. But they've also partially vindicated Spector's production as well.

To be sure, the digital scrubbing these songs have received has made them sound more intimate and warm, especially the songs recorded on the rooftop of Apple Studios in January 1969--the last public performance the Beatles would ever give. "Get Back," which now leads off the album, sounds like the Fab Four are playing in a small club--maybe the Double Door, where I saw Cheap Trick a few years back and where the Rolling Stones once jammed--rather than a polished studio version, which is what Spector used for the original album, despite the impression created by sandwiching it between Lennon comments, including his famous "I'd like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition." (Some critics of Naked have complained about the omission of this comment--and, to be fair, the song does sound truncated now--but the Beatles recorded three takes of "Get Back" on that cold January day, with the first being a warmup and the last being played amid attempt by police to control the rapidly gathering crowd, so take two is probably the one that was cleaned up for Naked; to include Lennon's snark would have created just as false a version as Spector had.)

"I've Got a Feeling," "Dig a Pony" and "The One After 909" all sound more immediate, too, playing almost like the boys are actually having fun. Even so, it becomes obvious that there wasn't that much of Spector's influence to strip from these songs--his production amounted to little more than knob-twiddling on a number (possibly even a majority) of tracks on Let It Be.

"Across the Universe" benefits hugely from the Naked approach, lifting the orchestra and chorus and returning it to the simple hymn it was intended to be. And George Harrison's "I Me Mine" sounds fantastic, too, without the strings and things Spector layered it with. Curiously, though, the producers of Naked chose to retain Spector's edit of the song--which cleverly pads out the length of the song by repeating lyric passages--rather than using any of the original, unedited takes, none of which run much past a minute and a half.

It's the "big songs," though--"The Long and Winding Road" and the title song--that have received the most attention from critics, both over the years and now.

The version of "Let It Be" that appears on the album has always irritated me like the sound of a dentist's drill on rotten enamel, mostly because a perfectly lovely version of the song (written about McCartney's mother) came out in single form two months before the album was released. Spector's additions seemed needless, messing with a song that didn't need his "help." The version on Naked goes back beyond the single cut, which is certainly an improvement over Spector's monkey business, but not necessarily an improvement on the single. And maybe it wasn't intended to be--if the idea of Naked is to remove as much evidence of post-production as possible, the version of "Let It Be" certainly achieves that, if it now sounds underproduced compared to the two later versions.

No song on the original Let It Be had more attention lavished on it by Spector than "The Long and Winding Road," which became a full orchestral production number under Spector's direction--and, consequently, a staple on easy-listening radio stations ever since. Perhaps I've been conditioned by those decades of play to be used to Spector's bombastic version, but the stripped-down take on Naked sounds not merely underproduced, but like a demo--a rough one at that. It's neat to hear McCartney's piano work and Ringo's delicate support on drums, but the song sounds too slight without more work. Spector may have overdone it by a long shot, but he had the right idea: "The Long and Winding Road" needed work to qualify as a listenable song, much less single material, and this Naked version just doesn't get there.

So is Let It Be likely to be subplanted as the "official" version by Let It Be...Naked? Not really. Naked is an interesting alternate version, but not much more. It isn't Johns' Get Back, nor is it absolutely free of Spector's influence. It's a hybrid of those two, obviously leaning more heavily toward the former, and it gives the listener an idea of what it was like to listen to the Beatles record one of their least-satisfying albums. (A second disc included with Naked, titled "Fly on the Wall," adds little to this experience--the second disc would have been better spent with rough takes of other songs played and/or recorded during those sessions, or it should have been left off entirely.)

And neither side of the argument can ever be entirely satisfied, no matter what Apple or the surviving Beatles--Ringo, whose work on Let It Be is highlighted to even greater effect on Naked, and Paul, who has been accused by many critics of orchestrating Naked to finally get it the way he wanted it--do. Me? I've still got all my other Beatles albums to keep me happy, and I don't need to get into a pissing match with anybody over an album most critics agree is, at best, a lesser, shambling, patchwork thing compared to what had come before: music that reshaped the industry--and listeners--for good.

Monday, January 19, 2004

A Couple of Poems About Childhood


The only thing
I can remember
about Grandpa

before his funeral
is the night
he and Dad

punched holes
in the clear
plastic tent

my brother and
I had constructed
on the perfect

grass in the yard
of the rented
red brick house

on Huron Street.
As we curled
for the night,

Dad turned on
the garden hose,
knowing we would

come running inside.
Grandpa crossed his
gray arms, laughing.


I never see the playground
anymore, the painted-on bases
and paved-over sandbox lost
in the fog of Gees, cased in
blacktop running like mascara
'round the old school bricks
and the sixth grade teacher with
the Santa Claus face telling me
"When you grow up, son, don't
let your shoulders be round."
I never see him anymore, gone
like a limps shoelace to Hell
with the rest of those furball
stares and worn tarot-card days
showing a child with plaster-cast
wrist too young for phone numbers
and blamed for bad handwriting,
reaping watermelon candies and
swingset privileges with a little
thunk, never looking for the day
of revival to be thought up and
scripted out like that ringing
up the ears of Saturday monrning
cartoon shows and movies where
the monsters never win--wanting
to go with Don Kessinger grace
but only lying flat, hours
rickety dried clover warped
out of the ground. Who knew
who flushed the gritted teeth
like Dad did every Sunday
mornings when "Who the God-
damn hell do you think you
are?" swam out in Budweiser
waves and whistled through
the bunkbeds like wheeze?

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

By 1923, Lon Chaney had worked his way up through the motion picture business from being an extra to playing bit parts to getting featured character roles to receiving star billing. But with his performance as Quasimodo, the title character in this, the first widely regarded adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (there had been at least two other versions before this), Chaney became a superstar.

Even now, more than 80 years later, Chaney's performance is something to marvel at. He manages to hit emotional notes that one wouldn't have thought possible, given the physical restrictions of the role--heavy makeup, a weighty rubber hump (how weighty depends on which source you listen to) and a harness to alter his posture. He is still able to appear menacing, terrified, pitiful, enraged at turns, all expressed through pantomime and expressive eyes. (Actually, just one of Chaney's eye is visible--the other is covered with makeup--thus making his skill at expressing feeling with a look all the more remarkable.) Combine this ability to convey emotion with his incredible, self-applied makeup (which Chaney based on the descriptions from Hugo's novel), and Chaney's Quasimodo is certainly a memorable one.

It's a shame that the rest of the movie doesn't hold up nearly as well.

Maybe I'm being too hard on this "Hunchback." Maybe its melodrama didn't seem nearly so stale all those decades ago. Maybe I just have a problem with silent film adaptations of Victor Hugo stories (I wasn't too thrilled with Universal's The Man Who Laughs, either). Or maybe Chaney's performance really is that much better than anything else in the movie. Any way you look at it, though, one thing is clear: When Lon Chaney isn't on screen, The Hunchback of Notre Dame drags badly.

The story is familiar by now. The gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) inspires varying levels of love/lust in three very different men: Jehan (Brandon Hurst, who played villains in many silent films), vile brother of the saintly Arch-deacon of Notre Dame; Phoebus (Norman Kerry), captain of the king's guard; and Quasimodo, who feels genuine gratitude toward the girl for giving him water after he's been whipped publicly for trying to kidnap her at the urging of Jehan. Also on hand is Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the self-appointed "King of Thieves," who looks on Esmeralda as his daughter and tries to keep her from the arms of Phoebus, a playboy who learns, much to his own surprise, that he really does love the girl.

A lot of time is spent on the romance and Jehan's plotting to either get Esmeralda or make sure nobody else can have her. There are also plenty of subplots, including dealings between Jehan and Clopin and the rantings of Esmeralda's true mother, who realizes much too late that the gypsy girl upon whom she has heaped so much scorn is really her flesh and blood.

Maybe if the center of all of this activity, Esmeralda, were a stronger presence, the melodrama swirling around her would at least seem justified. But Miller, while pretty, doesn't project the kind of sexual aura that would draw so many men to her. She just doesn't have the raw energy that Maureen O'Hara possessed in RKO's remake, or the exotic allure of Salma Hayak in the 1996 made-for-TV version. Miller's Esmeralda just doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss.

Still, this Hunchback is consistently good-looking, with some fine, elaborate sets (including a remarkable reproduction of the facade of Notre Dame) and detailed period costuming, and is worth a look if only for the career-making performance from Chaney. But for a more exciting rendition of this story, look to William Dieterle's 1939 Hunchback instead. It may not have Lon Chaney, but it at least doesn't induce sleepiness in the viewer when Quasimodo is off-screen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

This Sporting Life: Swing and a Miss

January in Chicago means many different things to many different people. Alleys lined with discarded Christmas trees and wrapping paper. Sidewalks covered with ice slick enough to send visions of lawsuits dancing through pedestrians' heads. Recoveries from New Year's hangovers and various New Year's party embarrassments (snogging your boss's wife, shagging your boss's girlfriend, spilling a very sticky drink on either--or, worse, both, etc.). Dreaming of a warmer, brighter, happier place.

For some, thoughts of sports warm the bones. In Chicago, unfortunately, this is often cold comfort, especially in recent times. The Bears, playing in what looks like a spaceship that crashed upside-down, have just concluded another depressing season and fired their coach the day after it ended. The Blackhawks, in their umpteenth year of denying televised home games to their dwindling fan base, have suffered through injuries and indifferent play and have fired their general manager. The Bulls have been dismal since winning their last championship and fired their coach in November, provoking slightly better play on the court, but not nearly enough to spark genuine optimism. And other Chicago teams like the Wolves (hockey), Rush (arena football) or Fire (soccer)? They get less press coverage than the annual mulching of Christmas trees by the Park District.

Which leaves baseball, which starts spring training in about six weeks. And there may be cause for interest there, despite the lack of big moves by the Cubs, who came within five outs of finally making it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime; or the lack of any moves by the White Sox, who hired a new manager (former Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen), then let most of their arbitration-eligible players go elsewhere in an effort to cut payroll, essentially running up a white flag before the first pitch has been thrown.

Still, the upcoming baseball season at least hints at optimism. And in this gray month, we'll take what we can get. And we can't even wait until spring training. Nope. We start ramping up now, when the Hall of Fame inductees are annually announced.

As is typical with my hometown--which, despite being the third largest city in America and one of the largest on the whole freaking planet, has an amazing inferiority complex--the press focuses hard on the players who have even the most tenuous connection with the city, the implication being that we wouldn't care unless it's about us. (Whenever a disaster happens--flood, plane crash, avalanche, etc.--the newswriters make sure to tell us whether or not Chicagoans or former Chicagoans were involved.)

So whenever the Hall of Fame vote comes around, the local newspapers, TV stations and radio talk shows first report who didn't make it from the local teams, then report who did make it. Example: On the cover of this morning's Sun-Times, the blurb reads as follows: "Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Bruce Sutter miss Hall of Fame." You have to flip to the back page of the paper to find out who did earn induction: Paul Molitor, who had more than 3,000 hits in his career and was a World Series MVP; and Dennis Eckersley, who became one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game after spending years as a starter (including three with the Cubs, who traded him off after he developed a drinking problem, but before his shift to reliever--marvelous timing as always, Cubbies).

Molitor was one of the most consistent hitters in the game and deserved to get in. Eckersley was a great pitcher (as a starter or a reliever) and deserved it as well. No arguing that.

Sandberg? One of the best to ever play second base in the majors, a perennial Gold Glove winner, a former MVP. Never made it to a World Series with the Cubs (who has?), but certainly worthy of induction. He got more votes this year than last; his time will come.

Dawson? A feared hitter, great with a glove, won an MVP award with a last-place Cubs team in 1987. Unfortunately, he was an outfielder, which means the competition to get into the Hall is greater at his position. Also never made a World Series, with the Cubs or anybody else. May make it someday, but it may take years.

Sutter? A pioneer short reliever whose career was cut short by injury, but whose dominance at the position when he was healthy was incredible. His chief pitch, the split-fingered fastball, was virtually unhittable--it looked like it was rolled along a perfectly smooth, invisible table and then just abruptly fell off the edge. If he belongs in the Hall of Fame (and I think he does), then so do Rich Gossage and Lee Smith (ex-Cubs all).

As for Pete Rose, who never played for either side of town but is generating a lot of buzz here, there and everywhere by finally admitting that he bet on baseball games while managing the Cincinnati Reds in a book to be released tomorrow...shut up even more, Pete.

You did something you knew was illegal, lied about it for more than a decade and then only fessed up when you had an opportunity to make some coin from the confession. I think you should be eligible for the Hall of Fame--you were definitely one of the greats of the game as a player, and there are certainly quite a few less-than-sterling characters already inducted, like racist Ty Cobb or boozing womanizer Babe Ruth. But yet maintained for years that you never bet on baseball at all, and now you say you did, but never against your own team and never from the clubhouse. I don't see how I could believe anything you say at this point. Yet you want to manage again? I wouldn't trust you to tell me which direction the sun rises in. Go away.

The debate as to who deserves what when can go on endlessly without resolving a thing. But all this talk of trades not made and the Hall of Shame√Čer, Fame, just whets my appetite for the season itself and gives me something else to think about than how to keep from busting an ankle while carrying out the garbage or how much my head hurts from the wind chill or how little sun I can see.

But the sun is out in the daytime, even when it's behind the clouds. Spring training starts next month. I haven't fallen on my ass once in 2004. My cup? More than half full for now. I'll take what I can get.

Thursday, January 1, 2004

Review: Black Sunday (1960)

Cinematographer Mario Bava's first official solo directorial effort manages to combine the trappings of the better Universal horror films--castles, graveyards and deep, cold shadows--with the graphic flourishes of the more recent Hammer efforts--blood squirting, corpses rotting and women whose dresses never quite have enough fabric to cover their ample, um, talent.

The result? A great-looking, surprisingly satisfying effort that succeeds in spite of its plot flaws and limitations.

The opening scene serves notice to the audience that this isn't your parents' monster movie. A witch (Barbara Steele, with luminous skin and slightly wonky teeth) is about to be burned at the stake for her blasphemies when the villagers take the extra precaution to tacking the "Mask of Satan" (the original title of this movie) to her lovely face. Just before the scene fades out for the credits, we see the mask pounded into place and a jet of black blood shooting out the top of the witch's head. Yick!

Fast forward to a couple hundred years later. A couple of doctors are traveling through the countryside when their carriage breaks down in front of the very cemetery where the witch and her vampire assistant (Ivo Garrani) are buried. They run into the descendant of the witch (also played by Steele), and the younger doctor (John Richardson) is immediately smitten.

The older doctor, though, makes the mistake of cutting his hand and accidentally bleeding on the body of the entombed witch, who just happened to be unearthed by a convenient earthquake (and who has scorpions crawling out of her eye sockets--do they have scorpions in Europe?). This revives the evil old broad, who through force of will brings her vampire buddy back to active duty, and the two of them set about bringing her back to full strength so that she can take the place of her young descendent and return to full, real life.

This may all sound pretty stupid--and, let's face it, it really is. But this is one of those rare cases where style really does compensate for lack of substance. There are some scenes in Black Sundaythat give the viewer a significant case of the creeps, such as when the young descendant's father, already fretting over the possible return of the witch and her servant, finds out much to his horror that sometimes, in the black of night, those distant sounds that keep growing closer and closer really are exactly what you suspect them to be and that, once this fact is confirmed, your doom is all but assured.

Despite the crepe-thin story, the bad dubbing (Italian horror films--and westerns, for that matter--are usually shot silent and dubbed later) and the cliched conclusion (with good triumphing over evil), Black Sundayworks because Bava knows how to create great mood and make the most of inexpensive sets, proving once and for all that you don't have to spend a lot of money to make a good movie.

Black Sundaymay not be the overwhelming, classic horror experience that some critics have claimed, but it is a stylish, efficient, brisk little gem, and it established Barbara Steele as a star of the genre for years to come.

No More Tears

I could spend this entry--and many, many more--expounding on all the reasons why 2003 was an evil, foul, vile year.

But most (if not all) of those events that made last year suck so hard (and not in a good way) have already been covered on these pages. It would be a massive waste of my space and your time to dredge any of them up here yet again.

Let's just say that every time I thought I'd cried myself dry, I found a new reservoir of tears, a new reason to cry; every time I thought things had gone as low as they could go, the elevator sped down to a new sublevel of pain and the sprinkler system went off yet again.

I made it through the year, though. I survived. Like always. But rather than merely survive, I'd like to live a bit more. And since I have no great desire to be redundant--not today, anyway--I prefer to look ahead. 2003 is nothing but a memory now, and a mostly bad one at that.

(Though, to be entirely fair, it wasn't all bad. It's just that the worst in life always overshadows the best. It's always easier to bitch about what you don't have than to appreciate what you do.)

But the old year dies quietly, with a Reggio's pizza, a bottle of fine Champagne left over from this year's HMB (courtesy of Sailor J), a Bela Lugosi movie or two, and a large white cat curled uyp in my lap as the fireworks exploded over Monroe Harbor and guns were emptied into the air just a few doors away in all directions.

And the new year is here. A fresh start. A clean slate. Mostly symbolic, it's true. My credit card bills still need paying. My rent is still due. I still have to go to work tomorrow. And my bed remains nothing more than a place to try to sleep every night.

But 2004 has finally arrived, a year fairly lactating with great promise. Beginnings. Endings. New directions. Challenges. Changes for the better. In direction. In career. In health, wealth and mood.

And, more than anything else, hope. For better things. For happier times. For dreams. For life. For living.

Any day that makes me feel this good--this hopeful--can't be all bad.

Happy New Year, everybody.