Thursday, December 27, 2007

I just wasn't made for these times

My, my, this is an eclectic group of party animals, is it not?

When I first saw a (different, much more stiffly posed) photo on the cover of the TV supplement in this past Sunday's Buffalo News, I thought "who is that stone-faced man standing alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, and Steve Martin?" Then I realized the bearded, bespectacled man was not FFC (he is really pianist-conductor Leon Fleisher, duh) and the stone-faced guy was none other than Brian Wilson. This motley crew was to be honored during the 30th annual "Kennedy Center Honors," so naturally I made a point of watching the broadcast tonight.

For the record, I think Scorsese's brilliant in small-to-medium doses, never really found Martin all that funny, never heard of Fleisher until now, and am one of the few homosexual men of my generation who finds La Ross tremendously overrated. She has her moments, from "Someday We'll Be Together" to her recent career in crime, but she's never really done that much for me as a pop diva, a camp icon, or anything else. I mainly tuned in for Brian. (Here's his official site's page on the event, with plenty of links.)

I'm really, really tempted to trot out that overused William Carlos Williams chestnut about the pure products of America going crazy, because this was one surreal assemblage of talent: the five honorees sitting next to each other and Lord and Lady Bush, Diana blowing kisses every few minutes, Scorsese looking slightly embarrassed, and Brian mostly off in that safe place he goes to when things get scary (which is to say 95% of every day since January 1, 1964). The announcer for the show was Carl Kasell, direct from NPR and my favorite game show. Apparently public radio does not pay its most highly regarded voice that well, because here he was picking up a little extra cash shilling for CBS, reduced throughout the evening to saying things like "The Kennedy Center Honors ... sponsored by: the Bristol-Meyers-Squibb-Sanofi Pharmaceuticals partnership."

Art Garfunkel did the intro to the Wilson segment, and people laughed when the first words out of his mouth were "I love rock and roll," thinking he was being sarcastic--when, as we know, Garfunkel does not do sarcasm. This was followed by a film bio which managed to compress most of the key plot points into 3-4 minutes, paying as little attention to the other Beach Boys as possible. I couldn't help wondering how Brian felt hearing this tidy, relatively perky trip through the most painful events of his life: abusive father, clueless record label, career-crushing depression, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, guys--you left out the brother who died of cancer, the one who drowned, the decades of lawsuits with the cousin, and the cult-leader psychiatrist. What gives?!

But no matter, for it was on to the musical performances, each more surreal than the last:
1. Lyle Lovett performing a truly touching slowed-down version of "In My Room" (the surreal note here was that I had just seen him parody exactly this sort of gala tribute near the end of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story to hilarious effect).
2. Hootie and the Blowfish, all dressed in matching blue Pendleton shirts, doing a cover-band medley of "I Get Around" and "California Girls" that inspired Brian to bounce around a bit in his seat, a move that Diana picked up on and began to exaggerate in her groove-y diva way, which in turn made Brian nervous again. Several elegantly dressed women in the audience leapt to their feet to dance, until, in that time-honored ritual repeated at every dive bar and suburban wedding across this great land since the early 1960s, their male companions grudgingly joined them. Soon the President and First Lady joined in, and for one brief and shining moment, a room full of wealthy, mostly white people was united in arhythmic hopping and bopping, clapping merrily against the beat. Even Leon Fleisher, whom we had just learned 20 minutes earlier has lost the use of his right hand--a tragedy that ended his career as a pianist and nearly destroyed him--was clapping away, visibly wishing he was somewhere else. A Christmas miracle!

This would all have been quite enough, but no:
3. "Ladies and gentlemen, Libera," says Carl Kasell, and out walk 9 boys in white choir robes (very Polyphonic Spree--and boy, wouldn't they have been a cool choice?). The littlest, cutest boy says in his best Oliver Twist voice, "Mr. Wilson, we were born a long, long way from your 'California beaches,' but the sunlight of your music can be felt every day on our streets in South London." Brian looks taken aback by this news flash, then smiles, and the boys sing a churchy choral version of his late-period solo non-hit "Love and Mercy," a wonderful song whose anti-war message surely sails directly over the head of our Commander in Chief (whose fave BB hit is BOUND to be "Kokomo," you just know it). The 9 moppets are joined by approximately 75 more boys; this new batch has clearly hit puberty so they have to stand farther back. All these underage kids chanting somberly about "standing in a bar" is a jarring image, but also lovely in its way. Brian closes his eyes; he and his wife Melinda look like they're going to cry, Diana dabs her eye, and it is quite powerful--until the kids reach the climax of the song, and--can it be? no, it can't! yes, it can!--dozens and dozens of beach balls fall from the ceiling onto the heads of the audience, who begin batting them around as if they are on spring break. Yee-ha!

Kasell takes us to another commercial break, then out comes host Caroline Kennedy, fresh from her recent notoriety as the inspiration of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," to wish us all a good night. (This is a total digression, but does it strike no one else as slightly creepy and restraining-order-y that she was 13 years old when he wrote that song?)

Writers' strike or no writers' strike, TV does not get much better than this, folks.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


I wish I could provide as detailed a review of Carlos Diegos's 1984 film Quilombo as this one or this one, but the simple truth is, I kinda napped through long stretches of it as I watched it tonight. I was more awake during the willfully eccentric making-of featurette (which looks like something Godard might make if he was hired to shoot promos for HBO) that I watched first; it not only encapsulates the plot (17th century slaves escape their Portuguese owners and create utopian societies in the wilds of Brazil, eventually leading to armed guerrilla warfare) but spells out the mythology behind various scenes that might otherwise be baffling to those of us not versed in Candomblé. You also get to see Gilberto Gil at work on the soundtrack, which is cool.

That soundtrack appears to be the most controversial aspect of the film in the eyes of many folks who've written about it on IMDB. One such reviewer describes Gil's music as "cheesy pop rhythms best left to the disco or bad cops [sic] dramas." A defender, on the other hand, draws a parallel to the intentionally anachronistic classic rock anthems in A Knight's Tale. Me, I liked it; I'm pretty sure I've got the title song on some compilation or other, and all the music is both catchy and evocative of a certain tone. I also appreciated the chance to learn more about Zumbi, leader of the rebellion, who gets name-checked by all sorts of Brazilian musicians. (I could be way off base with this analogy, but I feel like an outsider to US culture who keeps hearing about this guy "Malcolm X" in all these rap and soul songs, then rents Spike Lee's movie of the same name to find out what the hell they're all talking about.)

Great costumes, nice touches of what my friend Ed Cardoni calls "blatant artifice," intriguingly low-key (and thus quite effective) battle scenes. I drifted a lot, and apparently slept through all the key moments in which various orishas manifest themselves that looked so cool in the featurette, but I didn't feel the urge to rewind and watch them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Welcome to the rat race

Those of you who have been following this blog since its inception--all three of you--may be wondering what happened to the Brazilian music content, which was one of its original themes.

The short answer is, as predicted in my very first entry here way back in June 2004, the initial obsession waned. I still love the music and culture of Brazil and I still intend to write about it here when it strikes my fancy, but I'm not seeking out new albums and artists quite as compulsively, not doing as much research into it as I once did, not throwing myself into the endeavor with as much passion at the moment.

And yet: when I learn about something like this--

--a conceptual art project by Finnish-born, German-based Kristofer Paetau, in which five transsexual models in Rio wear "fake Chanel fashion accessories made out of taxidermised rats: a rat-bra, a rat-slip, a rat-handbag, a rat-handkerchief, and a pair of high heel rat-shoes"--well, attention must be paid. (I have Warren Ellis's always-provocative blog to thank for learning about the piece.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bringing it all back home

In my ongoing effort to revitalize this long-neglected blog, I've been slowly but surely restoring the ginormous links list I had built up before Blogger 2.0 came along and wiped the whole slate clean. At the rate I'm going, it's going to take me months to finish. But in the meantime, while updating the list, I've come across some interesting stuff, like:

1. Loronix, a mindboggling blog (mindbloggling?) archiving over 1500--that's FIFTEEN HUNDRED--hard-to-find-in-Brazil/impossible-to-find-in-the-States albums, ranging from obscure stuff you might seriously want to hear (Ivan Lins, Elizeth Cardoso, Gal Costa, and what appears to be some of Joao Gilberto's long-out-of-print early recordings) to obscure stuff like this--

--an album the Loronix-master describes as "instrumental rock renditions of Brazilian and international well-known Christmas songs. Very dancing and tiny session with only 26 minutes running time. Do not wait for Christmas time, you will have a lot of fun with Feliz Natal, they make me laugh out loud with the arrangements created for these tunes." Needless to say, I downloaded it immediately.

2. Loronix also led me to Bossa Brasileira, a blog devoted to detailed mini-essays (in Portuguese) about vast multitudes of Brazilian musicians, many from the pre- and early-bossa nova eras. While I can't read the text, I can still groove on the gorgeous album art and vintage photos, and the wealth of ultra-obscure video footage, including this chestnut, in which Perry Goddam Como sings an English translation/easy listening version of “Manhã de Carnaval” from "The Black Orpheus" [sic] with its composer, Luiz Bonfa, on guitar.

Extra-musical highlights:
Como's best line, "Louie, I don't speak Brazilian, but ..." (followed by an incredibly condescending attempt at ESL)
and Bonfa's scripted comeback, "Your English is worse than mine."

3. Speaking of awesome album art, I've started a new section of links devoted to cool sites like LP Cover Lover, where you can find oodles of images like this:

to cite an example which manages to combine my obsession with Brazilian music, my admiration of graphic design, and my fondness for wetsuits as fetish apparel. It's win-win-win! Note: the albums on the site are by no means all from Brazil, which explains why it is also able to offer us another seasonally appropriate LP:

If Christmas looked anything like this at my home, I think I'd move, pronto.

4. Still speaking of albums and art but not necessarily album art, the website of The Wire tipped me off to the cleverly named Graphic Design on the Radio (not to be confused with a certain buzz band I enjoy in small doses). Here you will find audio interviews with Neville Brody and several other designers whose names are not as familiar to me, in which they face the challenge of discussing entirely visual work via streaming audio, punctuated by bits of their favorite rekkerds. I haven't actually listened to any of these yet,but if I waited to do that I would never ever post anything here, ever ever.