SWEETNESS . . . EVEN GRACE

Tom Sutpen, over at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, has posted a couple of paragraphs from a piece about Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid which he'll be publishing in full next month . . . a preview of a coming attraction.  Here's an excerpt from the excerpt:


As a confirmed devotee of Ernst Lubitsch and his fabled ’Touch’ . . . Wilder was capable of investing the most sniggering innuendos
with a dash of wit and a wholly tender, yet never treacly,
sentimentality. Charm. That was the condition his well-honed technique
sought out; and in his direction of such actresses as Marilyn Monroe
and Shirley MacLaine, he became the only artist in American cinema who
could find whole reservoirs of sweetness, even grace, in all the things
that make men drool.



This is an insight into Wilder's work which I've never run across before, and it helps explain how he pulled off Some Like It Hot — a movie about cross-dressing which doesn't have even a hint of neurotic prurience, of homosexual panic, of misogyny.  The influence of Vienna must have something to do with it — the twilight years of an empire seem to provide a good vantage point from which to survey the foibles of sex without taking them too seriously.  (If only Freud had gotten the message!)

Tashlin had some of this in his view of things — see the tender way he treats Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It.  The pop culture of America in the Fifties and early Sixties was one long snigger when it came to women — Wilder, like Tashlin, knew that he had to indulge the puerile impulses of American men in order to deconstruct them, in order to revive a vision of sweetness and grace between the sexes . . . of summer nights in the Prater with waltzes playing somewhere in the distance.

One realizes that “Shut up and deal” is just a very kind way of saying “grow up . . . look me in the eye and ask me to dance”.

WAGON MASTER: A WORLD OF SPIRIT

This September saw two important events in the life of our culture.  One of them got a lot of attention, the other didn't.  The attention went to the CD release of the remastered Beatles catalogue — an event that was important but in great measure symbolic.  It was wonderful to have all those albums sounding so good — as good as CDs probably can sound — but it's not like the music had been unavailable before the remasters.  The remasters were primarily an excuse to listen to it all again and begin thinking about The Beatles' place in history.

A week after the remastered Beatles catalogue was released, John Ford's Wagon Master appeared for the first time on DVD in the U. S.  Its arrival didn't cause much of a stir.  Wagon Master was a film that had been very hard to see, and for that reason lingered at edge of Ford's body of work, greatly admired by some but generally considered a second-rank effort in the Ford canon.  The reviews of the DVD I've run across online, very respectful for the most part, have confirmed this status — the consensus seems to be that it's good to have the movie on DVD at last, even though its appearance is not likely to spark a major critical reevaluation, placing it in the same league as The Searchers, for example.

However, that's just where it belongs.  Wagon Master may well be Ford's greatest film, his most perfectly realized film and, in some ways, his most radical film.

It is certainly one of his most personal films and he himself often cited it, sometimes in company with The Sun Shines Bright, as his favorite film.  Harry Carey, Jr., who starred in the film with Ben Johnson, Ward Bond and Joanne Dru, said that Ford was in a good mood the whole time he was making it.  This was not usual for Ford, to put it mildly — he had a vicious streak that almost always found its way onto the sets of his movies.  It was nowhere in evidence on the set of Wagon Master, which Ford banged out in 30 days in something resembling a state of bliss.

One can imagine a few personal reasons for this.  It was a low-budget film, made by his own independent production company, and it had no name stars in it.  Ford had no executives on his back up there in Moab, Utah, where he shot most of it, and no star egos to keep in check.  He made this film with almost complete freedom from studio interference.

Ford said that he fought a thousand battles with the studios in his career and lost all of them.  Occasionally, with a studio head like Daryl Zanuck, he was fighting with someone he admired, grudgingly.  But look at the changes Zanuck made to My Darling Clementine between the surviving preview version and the release version.  They all coarsen the film, diminish its poetry and its subtlety.  They may or may not have been wise changes from a commercial standpoint — we will never know — but the film would have been a greater work of art if Zanuck had kept his hands off of it.

Wagon Master is one of the only Hollywood films I can think of which does not open with a corporate logo.  It's not marked up front with the brand of the nasty little men who controlled Hollywood by the simple expedient of exercising a virtual monopoly over film distribution in America.  (If you think any of those guys would have survived six months in a free market for movies, you just haven't looked past the glamor of their artificially-created power.)

Instead of a corporate logo, Wagon Master opens with a dark image of a robbery in a small office, superimposed over a wanted poster of the robbers (above) — the Cleggs, a family of outlaws who will figure importantly in the story we're about to see.  There's probably an ironic joke in this.  When Ford tried to create his independent production company, he was robbed blind by the studios he still depended on for distribution — and there was nothing he could do about it.  Working on a small profit margin, Ford's company eventually failed because the financial edge it needed was stolen from him by the studios he was trying to break free from.

So Wagon Master is brought to you by the Cleggs — like every other Hollywood movie from the era.  Dumb, brutal thugs, the Cleggs will come a beggin' to the good folks of the film's wagon train, sponging off them, feigning gratitude, just waiting for the moment when they can exercise their ugly form of control.  You can see the good folks of the wagon train as the people in Hollywood who actually did the work there, who actually made the films there, for the benefit of the dimwits with the guns.  How delightful it must have been for Ford to set the dimwits up in this way, all the while knowing that in the story of this film, at least, they would get their comeuppance, and then some.  No wonder he was in a good mood out there on the frontier, telling this tale.

But even if this joke is embedded in Wagon Master it's not finally what the film is about.  It's a lot deeper than that, a lot more complex.  On one level it's about the way men and horses move through landscapes — about the way horses behave when they're pulling wagons through rivers, about the way Ben Johnson sits a horse.  The way Ben Johnson sits a horse is at the very heart of the film.

Johnson's grace in the saddle is every bit as magical as Fred Astaire's casual defiance of gravity in his dances, and every bit as cinematic.  It helps to have some familiarity with riding to appreciate it.  On the commentary for the new DVD, Harry Carey, Jr., himself a fine horseman, keeps crying out with pleasure at Johnson's way with a horse.  (“That's how you get on a horse!” Carey will shout occasionally.  “That's how you get on a horse!”)  But even if you've never been close enough to a horse to smell it, you can feel the magic of what Johnson is doing — just as you can feel the magic of Astaire even if you've got two left feet.

As with dance, horsemanship suggests moral values.  Treating a horse in a kindly, respectful way parallels the courtly partnership of a great pas de deux.  Skill and ease on a horse, the physical virtuosity of it, evoke character, testify to history.  Johnson, like Astaire, had the sort of virtuosity which can only be achieved through a lifetime of discipline, a lifetime spent in the saddle or in the practice studio.

Here's something to look for in Wagon Master — a scene where Johnson does his most spectacular riding, fleeing from a band of mounted Navajos.  He and his horse traverse rough ground like water flowing over a rocky stream bed.  At one point Johnson loses his right rein at a full gallop downhill and leans down to retrieve it like a short-stop scooping up an easy grounder.  Johnson once said of a spectacular ride in another Ford film, “I was just a passenger on that one.”  This gets close to the mystery of riding — a great horsebacker is always a great passenger, in tune with his mount, with the ground they cover, in tune therefore with the earth but creating new possibilities of movement in space, like a dancer.  It is a combination of mastery and surrender, of harmony and challenge, an image of human potential at its extreme limits.

When you see Astaire dance, you know he's going to get the girl in the end.  When you see Johnson ride, you know he's going to save the dream of the Mormons migrating west.

You know he's going to get the girl, too.  The “love story” between Johnson and Dru, playing a slightly worn showgirl, is one of the deepest in all of Ford's work, and one of the sexiest, though Ford doesn't even give them a fade-out kiss.  It's all about the gracious courtship of a woman who has long ago given up dreams of gracious courtship.  It's about her surprise at this, and mistrust of it, and final surrender.

It's a romance that plays out in physical terms, in the way he moves and the way she moves — a complicated sexual display in which every casual touch or glance is erotically charged.  In the last two-shot of the couple, riding on the seat of a wagon, nothing has been spoken about what's ahead for them, but you can see it in their eyes.  It's almost indecent, what you see in their eyes.

Wagon Master is a film made up of closely observed physical phenomena which Ford has somehow invested with moral and spiritual meaning.  Good and evil don't need to be given symbolic markers — we see them at work without masks, without name-tags.  In all of art, I think only Tolstoy, in War and Peace, got anywhere close to this effect.

In Wagon Master, Ford shot a thoroughly convincing documentary about the world of spirit . . . about spirit made flesh, literally.  Other films have tried to do this, but Wagon Master makes even the best of them, like The Diary Of A Country Priest, look ham-handed by comparison.

The ending of Wagon Master is as odd and unconventional as its opening.  Just as the settlers get within sight of their promised land the narrative deconstructs itself — we are presented with a montage of discontinuous shots.  Some seem to show the characters riding on to a new life, others are shots from earlier in the film.  Time dissolves, the wagon train moves on, in the mystical dimension the film has conjured from its meticulous rendering of actualités.

To put it very bluntly, as Ford might have, to get us off the scent of his piety and faith, Wagon Master is a God-damned miracle.

CEVICHE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(With thanks to Maya for the extra exclamation points . . .)

Here's my personal recipe for ceviche, arrived at by combining a couple of rules I've run across:

The Marinade

1 cup of freshly-squeezed lime juice
2 cloves of roughly-chopped garlic (I actually use 4 or more cloves, but that's just me)
1 serrano chile, stemmed and roughly chopped (I use 2, for a very hot taste — if you want to wimp out, you can remove the seeds from the chile)
1/2 loosely-packed cup of coarsely-chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon of salt

Put all this in a blender and mix it up but good.

The Fish

1 to 1&1/4 lbs. of fresh fish, filleted and skinned and chopped up into small cubes.  An oily fish like mackerel is ideal but halibut or sea bass will do.  Indeed, just about any seafood will do — shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, though you need to boil the latter two for 1/2 hour first, to tenderize them.

Put the fish cubes in a bowl with the marinade and let it “cook” in the refrigerator for four hours, stirring occasionally.  If you use “sushi-grade” fish, available at some markets, you can wait just long enough for the marinade to flavor the fish before eating it, essentially raw.  (This is how it's done in Peru, apparently, and it's very fashionable these days, but not to my taste.)

The Garnish

While the fish is marinating, chop 10 (or more) cherry tomatoes in half and thinly slice a couple of green onions.

When you're ready to eat the fish, pour off the marinade, but save it.  Toss the tomatoes and the onions in with the fish.  Add a bit more salt to taste.  If you're going to be eating the ceviche with taco chips (highly recommended) you won't need much more salt.  At this point you can also sprinkle a little freshly-chopped cilantro over the ceviche for color.

Eat the ceviche with some cold cervezas.  For leftovers the next day, if any, dress them lightly with the marinade you've saved.

This dish is incredibly easy to make and unbelievably good.  You can find ceviche just about anywhere along the shores of the Mar de Cortes, where it's almost always sublime — and now, you can have it right in your own home, wherever you are.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Last week I had an urge to mainline a twist of pure cinema so I went off to see Inglourious Basterds.  I was hoping for something visceral and crazy and maybe a tiny bit original.  I got all of that and more.

Baudelaire said that genius is the ability to call back childhood at will.  The ability to call back adolescence at will is, I guess, a lesser kind of genius, but Quentin Tarantino has it.  This is not the same thing as pandering to adolescents, which is what Hollywood mostly does these days — repackaging material with proven appeal to teenage boys, dressing it up with loud sounds and  CGI to make it feel new.  Tarantino seems to be able to channel his inner teen in an organic way.

He also seems to be able to step back and watch himself doing it — which is what makes Inglourious Basterds so interesting.  Brad Pitt's brilliant evocation of an action hero from the Sixties has all the insouciant appeal of Steve McQueen at his best, but also comments on McQueen's essential dumbness.  The complex hall of mirrors that is the film's narrative gets us to cheer at preposterous, wish-fulfilling violence, and also to laugh derisively at people who cheer at preposterous wish-fulfilling violence.  Tarantino puts Nazi uniforms on the people we're meant to laugh at, but that only goes so far in enabling our denial about what we're doing when we root for the horrifyingly brutal good guys.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the film is its narrative style.  Its ads promise wild, extreme and nearly incoherent violence, and we get that on a regular basis, but only as eruptions from a slow, deliberate storytelling strategy.  There are a number of extended scenes that play out with an almost glacial evolution of suspense, concentrating on the tiniest details of behavior, the subtlest inflections of dialogue.

Like Tarantino's best films, it's a movie about talking — sometimes talking at great length.  The fact that such a film could dominate the box office for a few weeks gives the lie to everything Hollywood thinks it knows about the attention span of the modern audience.  The modern audience, like every audience in the history of humankind, has infinite patience for the deliberate elaboration of a story — as long as it's a good story.  Titanic proved this beyond question over a decade ago — Hollywood still hasn't gotten the message.

Inglourious Basterds isn't a great movie, but it's a real movie — which makes it great enough in this day and age.  Although it remixes ideas and tropes and genres and movies from the past — from The Dirty Dozen to Pierrot Le Fou — it arrives somewhere new.  It takes chances, not least in its return to the most conservative of narrative conventions.  It violates disreputable expectations even as it satisfies disreputable expectations — it leaves you off balance at every turn.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that, at its heart, it doesn't have even a whiff of cynicism about it.  It believes that the art of movies is still alive, still developing, still capable of messing with your mind instead of lulling you to sleep.  Tarantino may not have a clear idea about what to do with this capacity, this awesome potential, but he's determined to do something, and in Inglourious Basterds he has.

For an appreciation of Tarantino's faithfulness to genuine cinematic form as it relates to shot construction, read this important essay by Steven Boone:

Inglourious Snatch

GROSS

John Edwards is so gross that I almost can't stand to look at him — and yet, at the same time, as with a bad traffic accident, it's so hard to look away.

He shows us, if nothing else, that a man's hair can sometimes be a window onto his soul.

THE FLYING SAUCER OF LOVE

Here's a second report from Dr. Paul (of The Zahl File) on a strange place he went and a strange thing he saw on his travels this summer:

FINNISH MODERN . . .
EVEN THOUGH THERE ARE MARTIANS

by Paul (“Famous Monsters”) Zahl


Last month, my wife Mary and I led a group of friends into Helsinki's Rock Church, as it is now called in English.  It is the Temppeliaukio in the Finnish language.



This
is a Lutheran parish church not far from downtown that is now
celebrated as being one of the most innovative worship spaces in
Europe.  It was excavated and constructed in 1969 within a hill of rock
and is now surrounded by a beautiful square of townhouses. The Rock
Church was designed by two brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen.  It
was dubbed initially and locally as the “Anti-Devil Defense Bunker” but
is now treasured and loved.  It is a working church and the location for
many concerts, especially on its prized organ.  When we walked in,
Sibelius's Violin Concerto was being played.

But I was interested in seeing the church for a somewhat different reason:

It looks just like a flying saucer.  As a matter of fact, it could be a flying saucer.

When
you look down on the Rock Church from the square above, it appears to
be a saucer of light bursting from the ground, or, conversely,
embedding itself in the ground.  It especially resembles the
earth-craft touching down on Altair IV in
Forbidden Planet, not to mention the Martian saucer in Invaders from Mars,
and even more to the point, it is a lookalike for the saucers that
hide beneath the sea and within the earth, in the odd Canadian move
from 1977 entitled
Starship Invasions.



In other words, this is the coolest church in Christendom.  It requires a shout-out!

Can
we stop and think for a sec about what the Rock Church is saying?  It
is saying there is something precious buried within a rockpile just
outside the city.  Whether the precious thing is coming out, bursting
out; or whether it is burying itself, embedding itself in granite, is
unclear.  But it is definitely rooted in the earth.  It could not be
more rooted.

Is it preparing to be a “sleeper cell”, like the alien machines in the Steven Spielberg version of War of the Worlds?  Or is it emerging from centuries of frozen sleep below the Arctic ice cap, as in The Atomic Submarine, from 1959? (Just so you know, ahem, The Criterion Collection has done up the
latter in a box set, together with three other classics related to it, like

Corridors of Blood
.)



What is it doing in our midst?  We don't know.

But there is something here.  Whatever religion is
or could be, it is embedded in the nature of things.  It is not so
high, quoting the Bible, that we can't reach up to it, nor is it so
low, that we can't reach down to it.  But it
is here, to be
discovered within the nature of things.  It is in the root of a man,
and of the earth.  The Rabbi Jeshua said, “The kingdom of God is within
you.”  He did not spell out what he meant exactly.  Many people have
thought about this, and sought to fill in the blanks.  Nobody knows for
sure what he was intending.  But whatever it is, it is here.  It's an
open secret.  ”Take A Look Around” (Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66).

If
you see what is really here, what is in front of you and above you and
below you, you're probably looking at it.


We can even get high-brow for a moment.  Goethe has a beautiful passage in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship in which he describes the nature of religion as understood within a utopian school for children.  The children look up in order to express reverence.  They look around in order to observe the natural world, their environment.  And they look down in
order “to recognize humility and poverty, mockery and despite, disgrace
and wretchedness, suffering and death, to recognize these things as
divine; nay, even on sin and crime to look not as hindrances, but to
honor and love them as furtherances of what is holy.”


                                                                                                                              [Photo by Mary Zahl]


I think the lesson of the Rock Church, which is a world-class architectural site on account of its perfect resemblance to
an alien flying saucer, is this: the truth is here, embedded in rock,
unerodable through fashion or time, right in the marrow of the earth
and hearts, digging in or breaking out, and filled, just filled, with
light.

FAREWELL TO THE RANCH . . . AND A CODA


                                                                                                                      [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

It was sad to leave the Carneys’ beautiful ranch and so many good friends, so many good people, some of whom I’ve known since time out of mind, some of whom, like Corinne and Ella and Will, have just been born (relatively speaking.)  But . . .

The heart must pause to breathe
And love itself must rest.

So I jumped in The Ghost and headed, not south towards home, but north to Cody, Wyoming, the town founded by Buffalo Bill which now hosts The Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a museum I wanted to check out.  Cody is about four hours north of Jackson.

The Irma Hotel which Bill built back in 1902, named for one of his daughters, is still there in Cody, and not much changed outwardly, but it doesn’t welcome smokers — Bill and his cigars would be turned away, I guess — so I checked into a lovely, hospitable Super 8, had a few beers and crashed.

I was up bright and early for the opening of the Historical Center, which I soon discovered is one of America’s great museums.  It’s not only packed with artifacts from Bill’s life and Wild West show — the things I went there to see — but also has a superb gallery of Western art, another devoted to Plains Indian culture and a firearms museum that boggles the imagination.

The Western art gallery has several wonderful N. C. Wyeths, as well as fine works by Catlin, Russell, Remington and just about every other Western artist of note.  The Plains Indian exhibit has examples of exquisite Indian craft, some of them dating back to pre-Civil War days.

The Buffalo Bill galleries are filled with supremely evocative memorabilia.  You can stand near a skirt and jacket once worn by Annie Oakley and see how small she was.  You can see what’s left of Lucretia Borgia, Bill’s legendary buffalo hunting rifle.  Outside, you can even see the house where Bill was born, above, transported there from the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa.

You can see the original Deadwood Stage used in the Wild West show, above, as well as a back-up coach used on one of Bill’s European tours, below — most of the crowned heads of Europe were given rides in this coach as a special treat:

Standing in the presence of these vehicles sent chills down my spine — they were part of the spectacle that created the legend of the Old West in the American imagination, and the world’s imagination.

Before leaving town I had a meal at the Irma.  The old saloon with the famous cherrywood bar, above, has been preserved, with the old cash register still in place.

But the saloon is just a restaurant now, a non-smoking restaurant.  There are Western knick-knacks lined up on the shelf behind the bar, under the big mirror, instead of bottles of spirituous beverages.

Overweight tourists in shorts line up at a buffet to load on more weight in a room where Bill Cody and General Phil Sheridan, hard-bitten princes among men, once drank Brandy and puffed on cheroots, talking over old times on the frontier.

Our strain grows weaker.

That afternoon I had an awesome drive through Yellowstone National Park on my way to Idaho Falls, where I stayed in one last motel before the final leg of my journey, a long haul back to Las Vegas.  It was good to be home again, filled with such memories.

At the heart of those memories was the music my friends played up in Wyoming, still echoing in my ears.

BEATLES: ABOUT THE MUSIC

The achievement of The Beatles was centered around the songwriting craft of Lennon and McCartney.  They had, first of all, a gift for melody — something that's beyond analysis, beyond fashion and beyond criticism.  Irving Berlin and Abba had the same gift, and if you can't appreciate the melodies of Abba, because the group was so un-hip, or the melodies of Irving Berlin, because he wrote show tunes, you don't really like music — you've got other things on your mind when you're listening to it.

But allowing for that gift, Lennon and McCartney were craftsmen — like Abba and Berlin.  They understood their pop idiom and wrote for pop's audience, for the market.  When they had trouble getting a song to the top of the charts in the U. S., even as they grew more popular there, they analyzed the reasons for this and added hand-claps to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, thinking this would give the song a more “American” feel.  (Brian Epstein had earlier encouraged them to write this particular song expressly for the American market.)  It worked — the song was their first U. S. chart-topper.

In their first few years of success the demand for new material from the team was intense and they met it with an astonishing productivity.  They wrote 13 new songs for A Hard Day's Night in a matter of months, mostly on the road with a grueling concert schedule, and almost all of those songs are now revered as pop classics.  McCartney said they never, when collaborating, spent more than three hours on any one song.  They were consummate professionals.

What made the group, as a group, phenomenal, was what they did with their original songs.  It was a magical combination of small things.  The Beatles weren't the hardest-rocking group in the world, and only Lennon had a gut-level feel for the blues roots that nourished American rock.  When McCartney did his vocal impersonations of Elvis or Little Richard, he managed to leave out the sinuous rhythmic improvisation around the beat that gave those performers soul.

What they did have was, to paraphrase George Martin, ears.  They were open to all the musical influences that fed pop — country-western, show tunes, British music hall ditties, and such elements of rhythm and blues as they could master.  Eventually they added a new influence, Eastern music, by way of George Harrison.  But they mixed them all up into their own brew, based solely on what sounded good to them.  None of them was musically literate — they'd had no formal training and couldn't read music.  They relied on instinct.  No musical device was too corny for them, if it sounded right, yet at the same time they came up with highly unconventional harmonies that hadn't been heard in Western music since Monteverdi.

They worked within tradition but only because they'd absorbed so much of it into their own style intuitively.  In an effort to reproduce American rock music they made up new twists on it, by a process of what Harold Bloom called “creative misreading”.  To them, if it sounded like rock music, it was rock music, and so they expanded the idea of what rock music could be.

In playing their songs they also combined a lot of small, simple things into an arresting whole.  Ringo, perhaps the most under-appreciated musician of the group, had a rock-steady beat and a simple style, boring and unimaginative to some, but he inflected it with a lilt, a subtle impulse that propelled every song forward joyfully.  McCartney provided unusually melodic base lines which also added a subliminal lilt to their numbers — not something you had to notice consciously to feel.

Harrison grew by leaps and bounds as a lead guitarist over the life of the band, but even his earliest riffs, when he sounds like a talented kid trying out stuff in the garage, have a sure sense of the grace notes the songs need to take them to another level.  Lennon's brash, urgent work on rhythm guitar gave the group's sound at least a hint of funk.

Their vocal styles were individually distinctive but they were always ready to sublimate individuality to the sound of the whole.  This gave them enormous range by very elemental means.  Paul could do his crooner or his rock-shouter bits when required, Lennon could rave or insinuate sweetly — singing in close harmony together they could be something else again, a duo like none anybody had ever heard.

The combinations Lennon and McCartney could concoct from their individual and collaborative vocal styles were remarkable.  On “A Hard Day's Night” they take turns on lead, in different sections of the song.  Sometimes one will back the other with a harmony part, sometimes one will double-track his own vocal.  They play around with different levels of reverb.  The subtle variety of it, hard to keep up with unless you listen very closely, is one of the things that give the recording such a feeling of life and surprise, however many times you listen to it.  (It's easier than ever to keep up with it, by the way, on the new remasters.)

Ringo and George had less range and virtuosity as singers but distinct qualities of their own, which added spice and another kind of variety to the mix.

Pop music isn't the most profound art form in the world, though it's capable of conveying profound truths.  (“We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever leaned at school” is how Bruce Springsteen once put it.)  None of The Beatles had the melodic chops of a Jerome Kern, or the literary chops of a Lorenz Hart, or the musical chops of a Louis Armstrong, or the vocal chops of a Frank Sinatra — all those residents of the pop-music Parnassus.  But they used everything they did have to its fullest, they used the pop idiom to its fullest, and in the process they created miracles, one after the other, for almost a decade.

There was no artistic achievement in the 20th Century more impressive than their collected body of work.  It still vibrates with the immediacy of the creative energy and the clear-eyed craftsmanship that produced it.  The albums all sound as if they were recorded yesterday, as though they're being recorded live while you listen to them.  This is a quality that belongs only to the very greatest art.

THE LAST SONGS


                                                                                                                            [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

The grand gathering began to disperse after the night of the big birthday bash — J. B. and Cotty, hammered by too much fun, seek mutual support, above, as they wait for a plane at the Jackson airport.

A small crowd remained for one more day of fun and a last night of music.


                                                                                                                  [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

I sat and dreamed on the patio, and tried to write the words for a song Eli was working on, without success.  The other remaining guests went for another float on the river.

Eli serenaded Elaine as she came into view around a bend.


                                                                                                                       [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

That night, John's cousin Marina (above, with the author) had us all over to her house for dinner.  She served us delicious elk steaks from elk she had shot herself on the ranch.  Impressive.

Eli, Hugh and John played some tunes in Marina's living room — the site of a now famous hootenanny seven years ago on the last occasion most of this crowd had been together.

It was a good way to wind down from the intense fun of the past days.

BEATLES

At 9:45 on the morning of 9 September 2009 I found myself outside a Best Buy in southwest Las Vegas waiting for the store to open.  I was hoping to snag copies of the box sets of Beatles remasters, which had sold out pre-release on Amazon before I could order them.  There were about fifteen other guys waiting with me — no women.  “They can't all be here to get the Beatles boxes,” I thought, but with one exception they were.

I'm always surprised that there are other people in the world as crazy as I am.  The boxes would be available elsewhere eventually — it takes a bit of passion to want them desperately on the day of release.  The Beatles were a group, after all, which BROKE UP nearly forty years ago, and none of them had died recently.  I'm also quite sure that everybody waiting outside the Best Buy with me already had every Beatles recording on CD, as I did.  But they were supposed to sound better on the new CDs.  It was, as always, about the music.

That may seem like an odd assertion, since The Beatles have always been about so much more than the music.  They were, almost from the start, a phenomenon, a cultural force.  Now that phenomenon is laced with nostalgia.  If you came of age in the Sixties The Beatles are a permanent part of the soundtrack of your life, and at this point you have listened to their recordings so many times that it's hard to hear them anymore.



About half the guys lined up outside the Best Buy were middle-aged, like me.  The other half seemed to be in their thirties — they probably first encountered The Beatles in their parents' record collections.  Younger folks don't think in terms of “record collections” anymore — they think in terms of mp3 playlists.

When the doors opened most of the Best Buy sales force was lined up by a table displaying some of the store's few copies of the stereo box set — they seemed proud to welcome us, like a reception committee.  This was going to be a fun moment in retailing.  I grabbed a stereo box set, and soon the others on the table were gone.

“We have a bigger display in the back!” a salesman said, and the group raced to find it.  There were a few more stereo box sets there, but only two copies of the elusive mono set, which were snapped up before I could even identify them.

This Best Buy had sold its entire stock of Beatles boxes — very expensive items — in about one and a half minutes.  A black guy who had been in the crowd outside, observing the commotion, asked me what it was all about.  When I told him, he shrugged, mystified.  The rubber soul of the Beatles had obviously never gotten to him.

I stopped in rather hopelessly at a Barnes and Noble on my way to a grocery store to see if they had any mono box sets, but they hadn't gotten even a single copy of it.  They had three copies of the stereo box set, sequestered behind the front desk, and a list of fifteen people who'd signed up for them in advance.

So . . . that music I was talking about . . .

If you're wondering how much better the new remasters could possibly sound, the answer is — a lot better.  If you close your eyes when you're listening to them you can almost imagine you're hearing them on vinyl.  They have the warmth and “roundness” of vinyl recordings (to a degree) and a clarity that's mesmerizing.  Ringo's drums sound like drums, McCartney's melodic base lines are wonderfully distinct.  You can hear the lads taking breaths between lines of the vocals.

Listening on headphones, you get a sense you're inside the music.  The effect is so transporting that you really can hear the songs again — you even forget which song is coming next (sometimes).

There are sonic and musical revelations aplenty, and in an upcoming post I'll talk about those revelations . . . about the music.

BIRTHDAYS


                                                                                                                         [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

The evening of our third day at the ranch was what we'd all come for.  Two birthdays, two birthday cakes and one hell of a party.

John's cake arrived with fireworks.


                                                           [Photo by Hugh McCarten]

Elaine's was all about the sheer drama of chocolate and sugar.  The cakes capped an amazing feast, and were followed by more music.  Elaine started things off with a song dedicated to John.  She said she never sang, even though John always asked her to — so she gave him the gift of singing a song called “Something Great”.  It was by far the musical highlight of the week, emotionally speaking — straight from the heart . . . right on target, so direct.

Among many other great musical moments was John's lead vocal on an old Dylan song, “Tomorrow Is A Long Time”.

John's cousin Marina, a veteran of many legendary gatherings at the ranch, and about whom more later, had rolled into town for the occasion — many local friends also joined the festivities.


                                                                                                          [Photo by Eli Dokson]

Above, the author with Cotty's daughter Corinne and John's son Will.  Will and I had some great conversations about stuff like film noir while others chattered on about subjects decidedly less cool.  Corinne contributed materially to the general hilarity by agreeing to read the touching spoken interlude of “The Salami Song”, a little thing John and I wrote on a drunken evening in New York, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth.  It's a number that never fails to bring a tear to the eye and to remind us all of the dangers of mixing alcohol and songwriting.

JAE'S HOOD: A REPORT FROM BROOKLYN

My friend Jae Song lives in a remote section of Brooklyn, once utterly desolate and a refuge for Bohemians pushed out of Manhattan by the Duppies and Big Nanny and high rents.  (If they extended the L train out to Kansas, there would be a new enclave of disenchanted New York Bohemians flourishing there within months.)  There are signs of change, though — as more and more of the sort of folks who
have made Manhattan the capital of Connecticut arrive, seeking to experience vicariously the
juice of the island as it once was.  The irony is that eventually these Duppies will bring Big Nanny and high rents with them, and the Bohemians will have to move on once again.


Here's a recent report from Jae on how things are going at the edge of Brooklyn, with some great photos he took.  The place still sounds like it's got some edge left:


DESOLATION ROW



So I live in an industrial waste land . . .
haven't really gone out much here . . . though I hear more and more that
there's a lot of places to go now that all the hipsters have taken over.


I went to a show — a friend's band was playing.  The place was in the middle of nowhere — really — no cars, no people . . . I
couldn't find the place at first but saw some others looking lost and
followed them and found it.



Across the street was a little poker game with a bunch of big old scary
dudes
.  More big old scary dudes were in the back.




The show was at this hipster kid's loft he's made into some weird place
with a stage and a recording booth.  H
e sold cheap cold beer and there was a huge balcony so it was nice.

I got really drunk somehow . . . and wandered off . . . and heard music in the distance . . .



. . . and found yet another crazy little weird place where bands were playing.  This was sort of like a store front — super super small — but a better
stage and sound
.  Again in the middle of nowhere — on a street with factories — a tiny
little door opened into a tiny little venue.




By the time I wandered back home there were a million hipsters just
hanging out outside my building.
  Just sitting on the side walk smoking and I guess trying to stay cool
(literally and figuratively).



There's a bar next door to my place and across the street but everyone was
outside.


I have to explore more I think . . .

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Our third day at the ranch was the day of Elaine's and John's birthday, but there was lots to do before the celebration got underway.

First, the gang drove up to Gus's cabin for a picnic.  (Teddy actually rode her bike up to the cabin — a trek that would have taken me several days of hard slogging.)

The food was good, the day was fine, the company was congenial.

Ladies:

Then it was time for a float down the Green River, which runs by the main houses of the ranch.  That's the “big house”, Teddy's house, in the picture below.  The structure to the left of it is the bunkhouse.  The moose are often seen sneaking down to the river for a drink.


                                                                                                                 [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

Boats and kayaks were driven upstream in a truck and launched there, so all the boaters had to do was float downstream.


                                                                                                                  [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

John brought along his fly rod and fished for trout but didn't catch anything.


                                                                                                                  [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

Halfway along the float we beached the boats on a sandy bank and some worked up the courage to swim in the icy stream.  I was not one of them.


                                                                                                                      [Photo by Cotty Chubb]

I remained, like a good boat, superficial, reluctant to get to the bottom of things.


                                                                                                              [Photo by Corinne Chubb]

A night of partying lay ahead, which would become the stuff of legend . . .