Category Archives: Music

With the Lights Out It’s Less Dangerous

NirvanaPhotos

Above: Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yay!

When Nirvana released the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, it helped make them into rock gods. Ironic, isn’t it, since the song was Kurt Cobain’s dig at mainstream culture. According to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was all about: the mass mentality of conformity.” But the song, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked ninth in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, was too catchy, sexy, moody, hard to understand, hard-edged, frayed and nearly perfect to escape the clutches of the mainstream. Its hard-to-decipher lyrics were skewered by Weird Al Yankovic in his parody, “Smells Like Nirvana,” which featured lines like:

What is this song all about?
Can’t figure any lyrics out
How do the words to it go?
I wish you’d tell me, I don’t know

In a 1994 MTV interview, Kurt Cobain said of the parody, “Oh, I laughed my butt off. I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. He has some good people working for him. . . . They really know how to reproduce things to the T. He had the exact same setup. It’s the same video with him in it. It’s great.”

For an entertaining roundup of horrible cover versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you must check out April Winchell’s awesome multimedia site full of free audio clips that will keep you listening and chuckling in amused horror for hours, long after you’ve exhausted the “Teen Spirit” covers in polka, disco, Paul Anka and Gregorian chant versions. Winchell (daughter of the late ventriloquist Paul Winchell, who was also the voice of Tigger for Disney for many years) has a radio show in Los Angeles and has put together a very funny Web site complete with the best collection of odd aural pleasures I’ve found online: corporate training tapes, celebrities like Leonard Nimoy and Farrah Fawcett singing (they really shouldn’t), Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven,” Abba song covers in Hindi, Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line” in German,  a whole section devoted to terrifying Christian recordings—you name it.

The original “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a perfect blending of droning, captivating, chant-like repetition; buzzing power chords; barely understandable but still compelling lyrics and ragged-voiced angst. It encapsulates suffering, cynicism, dry humor and teen alienation. It felt fresh 15 years ago, and it still sounds fresh and raw today, despite being named the Most Played Video on MTV Europe in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records. Even though it’s one second over five minutes long, it doesn’t feel drawn out; its pacing, its bridges, even its repetition make it somehow stronger rather than monotonous. The layering of instruments makes for a great, pulsing wash of sound, but within the layers are subtleties, long-held and echoing guitar notes, a threatening bass line, and Cobain’s growling voice matching the bending notes and jagged timbre of the instruments around him, so his voice becomes an instrument to match them. The melding of his own voice and the growling guitar when he says “Yay!” is spookily satisfying, and gave me the same little shiver after the hundredth listen that it gave me the first time.

While the music on Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind,” from which “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes, is classified as grunge, it’s really just a polished, pure and more accessible form of punk, slowed down enough to be grabbed and ridden on, but it channels the anarchic spirit of British punks like the Sex Pistols, whose seminal album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” probably inspired Cobain to name the Nirvana album “Nevermind” in their honor. (Some say it’s also a tribute to the Replacements song “Nevermind.”) Unlike American punk bands like the wonderful Ramones, whose screamingly fast-paced songs about sniffing glue and teenage lobotomy patients, punk rockers and beating on brats with baseball bats were essentially all in good, mindless fun, the Sex Pistols really were about anarchy, giving the finger to the establishment, protesting the moral bankruptcy of middle- and upper-class British twits, the monarchy and the conservative political leaders of the 1970s and 1980s. They were the real deal, and Cobain admired that twisted, angry, anarchic vibe.

That punk vibe was bent, reformed and polished into some of Nirvana’s best work, and their songs were musically inventive and attractively melodic enough to grab people who would never give straight punk a second thought while being honest enough to appeal to pure punks as well. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was essentially a crossover hit, and its success rather embarrassed Cobain, since it made him and Nirvana superstars beyond imagining and, it seems, beyond Cobain’s ability to handle the attention, the adulation, and being co-opted by the mainstream until he became a media darling largely against his will. His drug problems and ultimate suicide of course only fueled his legend and turned him into a mythic figure of alienated youth and artistic purity tarnished by too much interaction with the filthy mainstream, the same mainstream which his widow Courtney Love alternately woos and trashes.

So where does the title come from? Kurt Cobain dated Tobi Vail of the group Bikini Kill, she used Teen Spirit, a deodorant marketed to teen girls. Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall to imply that he was marked with his girlfriend’s scent, but Cobain didn’t realize the reference and thought he was being complimented on his spirit of youthful rebellion. Again, how ironic: his anti-mainstream screed also served as inadvertent advertising for a Colgate-Palmolive product aimed at the teen masses.

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Nirvana

The Wham of Sam: My Sammy Davis Jr. Ephiphany

Wham

[Originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

A few months ago, I was doing a difficult job that lasted six weeks instead of the two I thought I’d signed on for. I was commuting about 10 hours a week (and I hate driving), and the job required intense focus on thousands of important details. I learned a lot, the people were kind and helpful, and the work they did was important, but I felt out of place, frustrated, and blue.

I tried reminding myself of all the things going right with the job: I was employed, working with good folks at an institution that improves people’s lives, making enough so that I didn’t have to work two jobs, and setting a good example for my daughter by showing that sometimes we do things we don’t enjoy in order to pay our dues, fulfill our obligations, be helpful, and earn a living. Of course, while my brain understood all this, my heart felt cranky and sad. I was frustrated that the talents I feel are the most valuable and worthy ones I have to offer weren’t being used to the extent I’d like to use them. And then I had my Sammy Davis Jr. epiphany.

To try to make the hours in stop-and-go traffic feel less gruesome, I realized I needed to find fresh and uplifting tunes. I love NPR (which recently featured an interview with Sammy’s daughter, Tracey, who discussed her new memoir of her father), but sometimes focusing on the latest events in Fallujah while stuck on a bridge for 30 minutes just feels too nasty and I need music. I rummaged through my CDs and found one I’d bought a few months back but hadn’t listened to much yet. It was a CD of songs performed by a man I must now admit I used to think of as one of the poster children of Vegas kitsch: Sammy Davis Jr. But the best part is the name of the album: “The Wham of Sam.

I must digress at this point. Are you already asking yourself, why would Laura buy Sammy CDs in the first place? Well, because I heard one of his songs in a store somewhere and was reminded what a fine voice and a great sense of expression, style, and warmth he had at his best moments. The many TV appearances he made during the 1960s and 1970s were so filled with Vegas schlock and corny overstylization that he was almost a self-parody by the time I started listening to music in earnest. He was doing campy, obvious, cool cat riffs during his showy performances on Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and The Tonight Show, and I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I’d loved his portrayal of Sportin’ Life in the film “Porgy and Bess” when I’d seen it on TV as a tiny kid, but I don’t think it’s been on TV since about 1970 so my memory is now faint, and I loved his performance as the Cheshire Cat singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” in a strange 1966 animated parody variation of “Alice in Wonderland.” His turn as groovy evangelist Big Daddy in “Sweet Charity” is a classic sixties moment that featured Sammy’s charismatic rendition of the song “The Rhythm of Life,” but somehow I forgot about that. The big hits he had when I was a kid, like “The Candy Man,” felt too cutesy and pat to me, and I dismissed him, with his goofy hipster patois and giant diamond rings, his membership in the Rat Pack, and his public support of Nixon was too bizarre. (I still shudder when I remember the much-publicized photo of Sammy’s adoring, awkward, full-body hug of Nixon.)

But when I heard him singing over the speakers at some chain store I thought, damn, no wonder this man was so popular. Listen to the feeling he puts into that line! What clear, clean enunciation! What sophisticated, tasty phrasing! So I swallowed my pride and hung out at a CD store listening station for a half hour, listening to selections from a number of his albums. I bought two, one of ballads and one of swingier songs. What a good move that was. But then I got distracted and hardly listened to them.

Anyway, back to my commute-hour epiphany. I popped “The Wham of Sam” into my CD player, and right there, boom, I was hooked with the first song, the star of the album, “Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The horns grabbed me immediately, and the energy, which starts out high, somehow continues to build with every measure of the song. The band arrangement by Marty Paich is fabulous, swingy in the style of Sinatra’s terrific “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” album (one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone–it was arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle).

“Lot of Livin’ to Do” is big and brassy and has something new going on at every turn, but the band never outshines Sammy, whose phrasing is exactly right. His syncopation is so sure and it builds right up to the payoff moments. He knows when to pull back a little and when to let it rip. The intonation and enunciation are beautiful, but beyond his technical chops, he works the lyrics just right. He’s thinking about what he’s saying, he means what he’s singing, and I believe every word. He was sizzling and I was thrilled, sitting right there in a traffic jam at 8:30 a.m., bouncing up and down in my seat.

I must have listened to that song six times in a row on the way into work. The words crept into my brain and Boom! I had a revelation. The words aren’t Shakespeare; they’re standard upbeat lyrics, and the song was originally written for the musical “Bye Bye, Birdie,” which is fun but not Sondheim, you know? But somehow, sung with that bravado and joy and excitement and underscored by that hot band, the lyrics spoke to me:

“… [T]here’s wine all ready for tasting / And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new / Gotta move ’cause time is a-wastin’ / There’s such a lot of livin’ to do. / There’s music to play, places to go and people to see / Everything for you and me / Life’s a ball if only you know it / And it’s all waiting for you / You’re alive, so come on and show it / There’s such a lot of living to do.”

I heard it, and I believed it. I figured, hey, this slight man had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a glass eye, grew up without his mom, had to deal with racism from day one, and had to perform in hotels that he was barred from sleeping in because of the color of his skin (until he became a big name and helped break the color barrier in show business). And man, did he love life. He ate it up and went right over the top, drinking and smoking and skirt-chasing too much, and hanging out with some unsavory folks, yes–but he also took a song like “Lush Life” and sang it like he’d lived it. Damn, he sang every song as if he lived it. And meant every word.

He brought fun and swing and life into everything he sang. Sometimes the hipster kitsch of it was too much for me, and sometimes the low-brow, I’m-gonna-please-everybody style of his later years felt like he’d dumbed-down his act, especially considering what sophistication he was capable of. His desire to please everybody and be up, up, up all the time cheapened his rep in the eyes of many of us, but the joy he brought to life, the beauty he found in it and made for others, and that devotion to wringing every drop from it reminded me how lucky I was and how many wonderful things are around for me to enjoy. I thought it seemed a sin to waste another day in disappointment that I’m not doing more exciting work, and I vowed I’d make good things happen, find them, make sure they’re a part of every day of mine, and every one of my daughter’s days, too. I figured if Sammy, who had so much garbage to contend with, could take his talent and shoot it off like fireworks, why can’t I take whatever gifts I have and make something fine and exciting of them, too? I may not be the dynamo Sammy was, but I don’t have his struggles either. And one doesn’t have to be a superstar to find something splendid in each day, or to make fine things happen.

So from that day forward I’ve reaffirmed my dedication to finding and doing good work, to making beauty, to learning something good and doing something kind each day, to being grateful for the opportunities to enjoy life more and to worry less about my dwindling savings (and how long it takes to find good jobs), and to writing regularly and with purpose. In a roundabout way, I have Sammy to thank for getting me off my tush and starting my  blog. The wham of Sam, indeed!

How Schoolhouse Rock Led Me to Jazz Great Blossom Dearie

Schoolhouse Rock

[Originally published as “My Roundabout Introduction to Blossom Dearie” on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

When I was a child, ABC’s Saturday morning cartoon line-up was punctuated with wonderful short musical cartoons sponsored by Nabisco: the famous “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. The educational songs created for these cartoons were so clever, catchy, and memorable that they were all rereleased on video in the 1990s for the children of the children who enjoyed them over 30 years ago. I grew up on the “Multiplication Rock” and “Grammar Rock” videos; my daughter loved them 30 years later.

Much of the appeal of these videos was that each was just the length of a pop song, and the music and lyrics were written by proven and talented professional musicians, not by earnest professional pedagogues. They were quick and full of information, and had busy, funny animation. And they were the only regular music videos for kids on TV then; there were weak shows with live-action singers or talentless oafs in bad costumes doing pathetic songs, like on “New Zoo Revue,” and there were catchy theme songs on the somehow compelling yet also vaguely disturbing Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf” (which starred Jack Wild, who played The Artful Dodger in the musical film “Oliver!”), “The Bugaloos” (whose villain was played by comedian Martha Raye, probably most famous to people my age as a denture adhesive pitchwoman) and “Liddsville,” that bizarre show about the land of talking hats starring Charles Nelson Reilly and Butch Patrick (a.k.a. Eddie Munster). But MTV didn’t exist yet and catchy musical TV ads for dolls or games (from “Life” to “Mystery Date“) were no match for three-minute musical cartoon masterpieces like “Three is a Magic Number” or “Conjunction Junction” or “I’m Just a Bill.” These songs were so good that a number of popular rock bands covered them on the album “Schoolhouse Rock Rocks.”

Of all the songs in the “Schoolhouse Rock” oeuvre, there was one that shone out as a particularly elegant little gem: “Figure Eight.” My mother loved it so much that she bought the “Schoolhouse Rock” album on vinyl many years ago just to listen to that song. This ode to the number eight was illustrated by a figure skater and the song was sung by a woman with an unbelievably darling name and voice: Blossom Dearie. The dearest part is that she was born with that name. And the best part is that sweet, small, clear voice has sung some of the lightest, crispest, most refreshing versions of a number of jazz standards I’ve ever heard. She also has a fresh, spare style of piano playing that underscores that little pussycat voice.

I remember seeing Blossom Dearie interviewed on TV in the 1970s; she had wit and sparkle, and I was rather amazed that her tiny little voice seemed not to be a put-on but the real deal. When I started listening to her recordings of jazz standards years later, I found there was less cutesiness than I expected, and more of a wistful, light yet wry quality to her singing. I love the way she delivers Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics in “I Won’t Dance” (“For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”) and the light but knowing quality of “They Say It’s Spring.” “Rhode Island is Famous for You” makes my daughter and me laugh, and it’s fun to compare her version of that song to Michael Feinstein’s. While I love Feinstein’s direct, swoony, passionate if sometimes campy treatment of lyrics, and think he does that song well, Blossom Dearie’s delivery has a quiet humor and a conspiratorial wink, whereas Feinstein’s is more of a showman’s romp, bigger and bolder and more obvious. Both have their place, but Dearie’s intimacy makes me feel like I’m in on a more sophisticated joke.

Papaoutai

In 2013, the most popular video on French TV and the number one song in France and Belgium was “Papaoutai” by Belgian singer Stromae. The tune and rhythms are appealing and unusual; the video is compelling and, ultimately, moving. Though the title sounds like it could be a word in an African language, it is actually meant to be understood by French speakers as meaning “Papa, où t’es?” which translates as “Dad, where are you?” The song and the story of the video refer to the absence of Stromae’s father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The plaintive cry of the singer who feels the absence of his father is also expressed in the child in the video who begs his mannequin-like father to come to life.

Oompa Loompas Go Oingo Boingo

oingo

[Revised from an article originally published on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

To celebrate my daughter’s twelfth birthday, she and her dad and I went to see the Tim Burton version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” We were disappointed with it, largely because of the occasional scenes of gratuitous nastiness and Johnny Depp’s unsympathetic portrayal of Willy Wonka. The book’s author, Roald Dahl, is a favorite of ours, and while he was never afraid to expose young readers to scenes of characters getting pleasure out of bringing dismay or suffering to children, his willingness to show us brutish and nasty antagonists serves only to bring us closer to his protagonists and empathize with their pain. The nastiest things happen to those who aren’t pure of heart.

Tim Burton’s new twist on “Charlie” introduces Wonka with an awkward animatronic display in the style of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride (on an intimate scale) and then proceeds to burn, melt, and destroy the Hummel-like plastic figures of children to the alarm of real children and to Wonka’s delight. Right off the bat, this introduces a sociopathic streak to the character. It doesn’t carry forward the spirit of the original book, nor does it serve to make the film more appealing or enjoyable.

The Wonka of the book and earlier movie did get pleasure from surprising and even frightening the children some, especially when they were being selfish. Gene Wilder‘s Wonka was mercurial, well-read, nimble with language, the inscrutable mix of wit, joie de vivre, charm, alarm, entertainment, warmth and unexpected temper that he is in the book. Wilder’s Wonka was philosophical, quoted Shakespeare, and showed evidence of introspection, which made his tender moments with Charlie affecting and meaningful. Wilder (and the script, penned by Roald Dahl himself) showed Wonka to be a wild genius but also a man of caring and conviction.

The Willy Wonka created by Roald Dahl was wounded but determined to find faith in the future again by putting his masterpiece in the care of someone who would appreciate it for its magic and creativity, and who wouldn’t turn it into a crass, commercial, soulless enterprise. Depp’s Wonka is completely lacking in introspection or empathy until the very end, and even when he arrives at some awareness of his own shortcomings and Charlie’s value, it’s really only as an adjunct to his narcissism, as a means to getting positive attention, not because of a drive to better the world. Rather than showing signs of wit and erudition, he makes two-word pronouncements that are less articulate than any of the children who have come to him with Golden Tickets: “You’re weird.” “That’s gross.” Gone are the wonderful spirals of wordplay that flew out of the pages of the book, the arch insights into the crassness and self-absorbed nature of modern culture. What we have instead is a flattened world and a diminished Wonka, artisanal Belgian truffles reworked into stale Hershey’s Kisses.

This take on the story is especially sad because Johnny Depp is an actor of range and depth when given the direction or inspiration. In last year’s film “Finding Neverland,” in which he starred as J.M. Barrie, he was delightful and nuanced, as was the young actor Freddie Highmore, who plays Charlie in the new film. All the scenes with Charlie’s family were more affecting and appealing than the analogous scenes in the Gene Wilder version of the film. This Bucket family is warm, engaging, and loving, and the scenes with them bucking each other up in their hovel were a tender contrast to the brash bright production numbers featuring scores of Oompa Loompas. They also underscored the flatness of Wonka’s character. In the book and the Gene Wilder film version, Wonka’s anything but flat.

I will give Depp credit for saying much more with his facial expressions than the script allows him to say with words. The new “Charlie” features several scenes involving killing and tasting the entrails of a large flying insect and lots of caterpillars. Tim Burton’s style of humorous sadism is gooier than Dahl’s, and he draws out the “ew” moments in this film in a way that is at odds with Dahl’s subtler and funnier wit. Tim Burton’s vision requires Johnny Depp to play a Willy Wonka so completely out of touch with both the world of children and the world of adults that he comes across as a sort of disturbing mixture of Emo Phillips and Michael Jackson.

Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took another childlike misfit character, Pee-wee Herman, and built a brilliantly original film around him, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” But Paul Reubens’ Peewee had an appealing inner core; he was wildly immature, but he also cared for people (like Simone the waitress) and animals (whom he rescued from a burning pet store). He was a goof, but he was harmless, and while he could get angry at Francis, his nemesis, he didn’t want to cause others suffering. He was a sympathetic character, so he could stand up to the Tim Burton treatment, and even benefit from it; the slight darkness of Burton’s vision burnished the edges of Peewee’s primary-colored world, and the scene involving Large Marge is priceless.

Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” (also played by Depp, and beautifully) was an incredibly sympathetic figure, a tender-hearted artist trapped in a body with monstrous and dangerous hands. Burton’s “Batman” with Michael Keaton was such a successful mix of dark and dangerous with quirky and humorous that it launched a whole series of films trying to capture some of the magic and excitement of the Burton treatment. But I’ve found most of Burton’s films of the past decade a bit colder and meaner at heart. “Big Fish” was just an odd mess; it was trying for emotional connection with the audience but I just found it poorly scripted, boring, and overacted. Usually excellent actors like Billy Crudup and Albert Finney gave annoying and vaguely embarrassing performances (which I blame largely on the loopy direction).

I hope that Burton’s soon-to-be-released animated film, “The Corpse Bride,” will once again mix his gothic cynicism with the sense of childlike wonder that some of his earlier films held. I miss the fresh visions and psychological insights of those works. I will give applause to Danny Elfman for the (as usual) exciting score and fresh, funny, original songs. I’ve enjoyed his work for nearly 25 years; I used to go to see him and his clever, brash, brassy band, Oingo Boingo, when they came up to the Bay Area and loved them every time I saw them. Their energy was intense and focused, the band was tight and great, the lyrics were unique and cynically funny. Elfman was clearly a man of strong opinions and endless energy. His score for “Peewee’s Big Adventure” was a perfect jumping-off point for his talent and his style, and his theme for “The Simpsons” fits the feel of the show and the characters; it’s hard to imagine it without that signature theme and all the visual cues we all associate with its musical phrases. His orchestral work for the movies is so lush and evocative that I always enjoy his scores, but I’ve missed the darker, edgier, bouncier Danny I saw in San Francisco and Berkeley years ago.

The new songs for the glitzy Oompa Loompa production numbers in the new “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” will stick with me and entertain me longer and better than the film itself. That’s a soundtrack I’ll be happy to own. But I’ll skip the DVD; I’d rather drag out my old “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” videotape and watch Gene Wilder sing “Pure Imagination” again. And again. And again.