In the rotation: late summer

Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)
Cover of M3LL155X by FKA twigs (Courtesy Young Turks UK)

A couple of things I’ve been listening to lately :

FKA twigs,  M3LL155X 

The British singer/dancer/songwriter/performance artist (birth name: Tahliah Barnett) steps forward as Kate Bush’s truest spiritual daughter with this five-song multimedia project that appeared with no advance notice on Aug 13. Working with producer Boots, twigs continues to make bewitching and confident music that defies easy classification — like last year’s LP1, the new EP is a mesh of electronica and R&B that pulls you into its dreamy drifting logic the more you listen. Like Kate Bush, twigs sounds ethereal but her concepts, and the conviction with which she puts them forth, carry a gigantic echo. Both artists think and perform across art forms, and both artists’  lyrics and videos explore sex, gender, creativity and the inner lives of women with a dramatic flair that marries the beautiful and the grotesque.

The release of M3LL155X (pronounced “Melissa”) was accompanied by a visually arresting 16- minute video, directed by twigs, that strings a narrative together from four of the songs and hinges on twigs’ explanation that “Melissa” is her “female energy.” The film opens with a regal gold-toothed, tattooed and bejeweled figure (portrayed by Michele Lamy) — she could be the wise crone or a mother goddess — wearing a swan-necked light bulb on her forehead to suggest the esca of an angler fish. Meanwhile, we hear twigs singing “Figure 8,” about learning to be tough yet still womanly by following the example of vogueing men. The lyrics are a sensual stream of juxtaposed maternal imagery and violence: “I’ve a baby inside/ But I won’t give birth until you insert yourself inside of me … I am an angel/ My back wings give the hardest slap that you’ve ever seen.”

As “Figure 8” flows into the staggered, spacy “I’m Your Doll,” the crone’s mouth closes around the light bulb and gives birth to a blow-up doll that uncurls from its fetal position to become twigs with a plastic CGI body: “Wind me up/ I’m your doll/Dress me up/I’m your doll/ Love me rough …” As harrowing as “I’m Your Doll” sounds on the EP, it’s even moreso on video, with twigs-as-blow-up-doll enduring dehumanizing sex while her big fringed doll-eyes stare emptily at the ceiling.

In the next song, “In Time” (the most immediately melodic song on the EP), twigs wakes up with a huge prosthetic pregnancy belly, then dances for a man who watches impassively as she implores him be his best self: “Learn to say sorry and I will play tender with you … I will be better and we will be stronger and you will be greater/ The one that I always wanted you to be.” But when her waters break in a gush of multicolored paint down her legs, the man’s face contorts in disgust. “You got a goddamn nerve,” twigs screams on the jagged chorus.

The male gaze and the female gaze morph back and forth in the final sequence “Glass and Patron,” in which twigs births herself of vogueing, fluidly gendered males, meant to symbolize “Melissa.” They vogue for her inspection, and then she joins them, decked out in breathtaking red on a fashion runway. As a multimedia performance piece, M3LL155X is intoxicating and in-your-face, and FKA twigs executes it all without flinching.

Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?

Hot Chip’s sixth studio album has rarely left my playlist since it was released a few months ago. I’m in love with the humanness of this record, not to mention its mood-elevating dance grooves. From the sampling of “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice that opens the lead track “Huarache Lights,” to the funky Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet keyboard sound on “Started Right,”  to the slow-jam loveliness of “White Wine and Fried Chicken” (which Prince really should cover), Hot Chip infuses its electronic pop with soulfulness, warmth and a tang of wistfulness that never slides over into nostalgia. It’s an album about the anxiety of growing older and obsolete — “replace us with the things that do the job better” goes the robotic-voice chorus of “Huarache Lights” — tempered by the enduring joy of finding human connection, be it through love or music.

Not on the album, but firmly of the album: Hot Chip’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” which they’ve been playing on their Why Make Sense? tour. Everything about this choice is perfect. “Dancing in the Dark” was Springsteen’s first single off 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. and his first attempt at a modern-sounding synth-driven dance song. At the time, Springsteen took some heat from rock-oriented fans over his foray into “disco.” But Springsteen’s vulnerable, yearning vocal, about wanting to get out into world, no matter how grim and restricting, and be alive, counteracts the potential remoteness of the synthesized keyboards. Which has pretty much been Hot Chip’s approach to making music, in their fusion of electronica, Alexis Taylor’s intimate vocals and actual guitar and drums. Hot Chip’s touring version of the song works as both homage to Springsteen and extension of the theme of Why Make Sense? They put the soul into the machine, and leave their audiences, literally, dancing in the dark.

Also, I really want this sweatshirt.

 

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

ESPN Films Presents “Au Naturel: The Shocking Story of Dinger’s Rocky Road to Fame”

Photo ©Onetwo1 at the English language Wikipedia

 

Narrator: It’s the ninth inning at Coors Field, and Dinger, the Colorado Rockies’ purple dinosaur mascot, is crouched behind the home plate screen plotting the kind of mischief that’s endeared him to baseball fans everywhere. His polka-dotted head-frill and piercing black eyes loom just above the backstop like a shark’s fin. And then, just as the rival team’s closer goes into his wind-up — watch out! (Chuckling.) Up pops Dinger, in one of his hilarious “psych-out” moves!  There’s no denying that baseball loves Dinger. But, hard as it is to believe, there was once a time when Dinger nearly gave up on baseball.

Dinger: I played Little League ball, high school ball. Made the team as a walk-on my freshman year at State. My dream was to go pro. It’s all I thought about, 24/7. I gave it everything I had, but in the end, I guess it wasn’t enough. I got cut my sophomore year. (Quietly.) I still don’t understand why.

Ron “Dusty” Springfield, Dinger’s college coach: We gave him a shot. He had desire, I’ll say that. Tried his damnedest. But that big bony clamshell-thing on his head — the kid was top-heavy. He’d try to run out a ground ball and he’d tip right over before he even got out of the batter’s box. Also, he had only eight fingers. Made it tough for him to swing a bat. But I’d say Dinger’s biggest liability was that you just couldn’t get him to wear pants.

Al Albondigas, former teammate: We used to beg him, “Dude, please put on your pants! Or at least wear a shirt that isn’t a crop top.”

Brandon Cody Kyle, former teammate: It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was purple all over, you know? But that flesh-colored belly in front, under the crop top? That shit was disturbing. He looked like one of those guys you’d see being dragged out of a trailer on Cops.

Narrator: His baseball hopes shattered, Dinger dropped out of college and went home to live in his parents’ basement.

Dinger’s mother, Karen: It was heartbreaking to see Dingy so low. He was such a happy child from the minute he hatched, always smiling, always with a baseball cap between his horns. (Sobbing.) As a mom, you ask yourself, “Where did I go wrong?”

Dinger’s father, Buck: Where did you go wrong? You coulda made him put on some dang pants!

Narrator: Depressed and aimless, Dinger fell in with a rough crowd. Soon, he was stealing copper wire from construction sites, selling it to pay for his bath salts addiction.

Dinger: Dark days, man. Dark days.

Narrator: And then, on the night of March 12, 1993, Dinger’s world came crashing down on a highway outside of Denver.

Denver Police Officer Chet Huntley: My partner and I responded to reports of a purple individual running around in traffic singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and swinging a dead rat like a baseball bat. From his obvious hallucinatory behavior, we suspected that the individual was riding high on Purple Wave.

Denver Police Officer David Brinkley: That, and the fact that he was wearing a little crop top and no pants. With bath salts junkies, that’s usually the tip-off.

Narrator: The officers managed to subdue Dinger with a stun gun and transport him to a local psychiatric ward for observation. But luck was on Dinger’s side, because Ernie Bisonburger, Dinger’s old Little League coach, was in the same psych ward, also under observation for running amok on bath salts. Although completely off his face from a sweet batch of Zoom, Bisonburger still recognized his former player.

Ernie Bisonburger: The Lord must have had a plan. Why else did He get me banned from coaching for betting on T-ball games? Yes, The Almighty put those bath salts in my hand that night for one reason — so I could save that naked-ass purple kid’s life!

Dinger: It was a miracle. That’s the only way I can describe it. Ernie took me to a meeting of Bath Salts Anonymous and by the grace of a Higher Power, I got clean. And I knew then that I would somehow get back to baseball, the only thing I ever loved more than bath salts. (His voice breaks.) I would get there, if it took me the rest of my life.

Baby Bop, Dinger’s cousin: I was at an audition and I heard some of the other girls saying that the Colorado Rockies were holding tryouts for a mascot. Mascotting isn’t my thing, I’m more into musical theater, but I thought, hey, maybe I can talk Dinger into giving it a shot.

Dinger: I thought she was crazy! Me? A mascot? I didn’t know jack-squat about the mascot biz. But I said to myself, Hell, just to stand on a diamond again, even if I don’t get the gig — that’s worth the two-hour drive to Coors Field listening to Baby Bop sing “I Love You, You Love Me” over and over.

Baby Bop: I suggested that he might want to be fully clothed for the tryout and he said to me, “BB, I’ve been thinking. Every mascot needs a gimmick. The Phillie Phanatic has that snout-thing, Mr. Met has his head. Well, Dinger has something too. Dinger has no pants.”

Roget S. Thesaurus, Rockies’ Head of Marketing: We must have seen 200 mascots that day. Most of them were pathetic knock-offs of the Phanatic or Benny the Bull, mascots that manage to convey the soul of their teams and fan bases in a silly yet iconic way. But we wanted something different. We wanted a mascot that had only the most tenuous and obscure connection to baseball and Colorado. We weren’t sure exactly what that was, but then we saw Dinger and we knew. We wanted a cartoonish anthropomorphic triceratops with a creepy humanoid belly hanging out of a shrunken T-shirt. And the same look in his eyes that De Niro had when he went on that rampage at the end of Taxi Driver.

Narrator: Against all odds, Dinger found his way back to the game that he loved. And in doing so, he changed the face of baseball mascotry forever.

Walt Weiss, Rockies’ manager: Would it kill him to put on some pants?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

Chasing Amy

 

Detail from foyer image of "Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait" (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)
Detail from foyer image of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” (© Mark Okoh, Camera Press London)

Exactly four years after Amy Winehouse completed her heartbreaking slow-motion swan dive into the void, I surveyed the flotsam and jetsam of her life on the opening day of “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Organized by the Jewish Museum of London with extensive input from her family, “A Family Portrait” is a quiet, almost shrine-like, remembrance of the ferociously talented pop-jazz singer who succumbed to the ravages of bulimia and alcohol and drug addiction in 2011 at age 27.

There are only the vaguest references to Winehouse’s struggles in “A Family Portrait”: a 2007 Rolling Stone cover with the headline “The Diva and Her Demons” and a wall label featuring a quote from her older brother Alex mentioning the Amy Winehouse Foundation, a UK charity set up by her family to educate young people about the dangers of addiction. But then, starker references aren’t necessary. Amy’s absence and her family’s grief are nearly palpable in the intimate exhibition space. The loss of her resonates everywhere you turn: in the video of teenaged Amy tearing it up, already possessed of that magnificent voice and eccentric phrasing, in a school revue; in the suitcase full of loose family snapshots that she hoarded; in her brother’s notes on her little collection of Snoopy paraphernalia. “This book was a Christmas present from my mum to me many years ago,” writes Alex Winehouse of a well-worn Snoopy paperback book. “Stolen by Amy, I took it back after she died and always carry it with me.”

The Snoopy anecdote got to me. This is what loss feels like; flesh and blood are gone, but the sadly mundane possessions — the tattered Snoopy paperback, the cheesy cache of refrigerator magnets — remain. They’re woefully inadequate reminders that you can’t put your arms around a memory.

It seems a stretch to call “A Family Portrait” an exhibit; it’s too narrowly focussed and reverential for that. There is little to contextualize Amy Winehouse, the Star. A few of her tiny stage dresses hang dispiritedly above a row of her stiletto heels and her old Regal acoustic guitar stands next to a portion of her record collection, but her singing voice is absent except for that  school video. There is one video of Winehouse after she achieved success, a European TV performance of “Back to Black,” but it plays in a loop on a screen outside the exhibit.

And though the show was organized and is currently housed by a Jewish museum, there are only a few overt connections to Judaism (the Winehouses were not strictly observant): a family tree tracing Amy’s ancestors’ emigration from Belarus, Poland and Russia to London; a Jewish cookbook given to Amy by Alex;  a few photos from Alex’s bar mitzvah.

But in one respect, the exhibit powerfully justifies its existence and its venue. Visiting “A Family Portrait” is like attending shiva (the Jewish period of mourning) at the home of the departed. It leaves you feeling enormously tender towards Amy;  your heart aches with the loss of her.

The CJM is also showing “You Know I’m No Good” as a companion exhibit to “A Family Portrait.” Consisting of works by San Francisco artists Jason Jagel and Jennie Ottinger and New York artist Rachel Harrison, the smaller exhibit attempts to broach the subjects “A Family Portrait” doesn’t encompass: Amy Winehouse’s legacy as a performer, and artistic interpretations of her as an icon.

Jagel’s “What Remains When You’re Not Here” makes a sensitive landing point as you enter the small side room still in a fugue of sadness from “A Family Portrait.” Jagel places an Amy-shaped blue and turquoise empty space in the center of the frame; it’s a perfect complement to the feelings of grief and absence stirred by the main exhibit.

But the centerpiece of the side exhibit is Jennie Ottinger’s “Mouth to Mouth,” a wall-length (and then some) collage consisting of cut-out and painted figures of Winehouse and the black female singers who came before her. According to the wall labels, the artwork is from a stop-motion animation addressing cultural appropriation. The figures on the wall include Nina Simone without a mouth, Billie Holiday, the Ronettes and the Supremes, all surrounded by disembodied lipsticked mouths, some with black skin, some with white. Pieces of Amy — the eyeliner-winged eyes, the ratted bouffant, torso, arms, legs — float around a final image of her with a three-dimensional black-skinned mouth placed over her own.

In the notes, Ottinger writes,  “As talented as Ms. Winehouse was, she did not invent her distinctive sound but brilliantly extended what had been happening in black music from Mamie Smith in the 1920s through Lauryn Hill in the 1990s … As amazing as Winehouse sounds, she built on the work of talented predecessors who sadly never achieved the level of appreciation that she did.”

While I doubt that anyone listening to her ever believed that Amy Winehouse “invented” jazz or R&B (or eyeliner and bouffants, for that matter), “she didn’t invent her distinctive sound” is a strange, contradictory phrase. Amy’s sound was, unequivocally, distinctive, because her voice — and what she did with it — was distinctive. It was her own. Of course she invented it — she was born with it. And while it’s clear that Winehouse was influenced by black artists, it seems disingenuous to state that such revered, towering musical and cultural figures as Holiday, Simone, the Supremes and the Ronettes, for example, “did not achieve the level of appreciation” Winehouse did. You could argue that those artists, particularly Holiday and Simone, didn’t achieve the level of monetary compensation that Winehouse did. But “appreciation”?

Ottinger’s is a provocative piece, but Amy Winehouse feels like the wrong target at whom to launch a loaded projectile like “cultural appropriation.” Winehouse was no dabbler in black music; there was nothing manufactured, opportunistic or artificial about her feel for jazz, the blues or R&B. In the main exhibit, her record collection and her playlist of favorite songs (compiled while still a schoolgirl) is heavy on Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan, along with her other avowed influences Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Carole King. Winehouse grew up in a jazz-loving household. She felt the pain and joy of the music;  that much was obvious even in the main exhibit’s video of Amy at 14 singing in the rich, near-fully-formed jazz-soul style of the adult Amy.

Was this white Jewish girl influenced by artists of color? Without a doubt. Can’t we leave it at that, and rejoice in black music’s power to bridge racial and cultural divides and speak deeply to universal feelings across color lines?

I appreciate the attempt by the CJM to offer a weightier component to “A Family Portrait.” But the balance feels off, like speaking ill of the dead at a funeral. Maybe the problem is that the main exhibit is so overwhelmingly adoring that, in this context, Ottinger’s piece feels unduly harsh. Still, “A Family Portrait” does seem incomplete. The unanswered questions are glaring. What was it about Amy Winehouse that made her such a singular talent? Why was she so vulnerable to the demons that finally took her life? And where was her family when all of the bad shit was going down?

The best companion piece to “A Family Portrait” isn’t a companion piece at all; it’s Asif Kapadia’s devastating, beautiful documentary Amy, which I went to see right after leaving the museum. In “A Family Portrait,” one of the first objects we see is Amy’s admission essay to Sylvia Young, a London performing arts school, written at age 13. “I have this dream to be famous, to work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes,” she wrote. Those words weighed on my mind as I watched her dreams of fame come true in Amy. 

Kapadia tells the story through home videos, news footage, interviews, and Amy’s music. There is no traditional narration, no talking heads on camera, but the tragic arc of her life — from the opening video of the teenage Amy singing “Happy Birthday” in that precocious voice, to the skeletal, wasted figure circled by the strobe-flashes of British tabloid vultures near the end — is shatteringly clear. It’s not a new story: emotionally vulnerable young woman possessed of an outsized gift is preyed on by parasites until it kills her. But the fact that Amy’s struggles were no secret, and the people closest to her were unable or unwilling to help her, make them all the more devastating.

There are gorgeous moments in the movie;  in particular, the early career footage of Amy makes a strong case for her genius as a songwriter and for her intuitive jazz-soul phrasing. She recalls Laura Nyro a bit as she soulfully sings “I Heard Love Is Blind” (accompanying herself playing jazz chords on guitar) in an audition tape for record company execs. And the image of a young, radiant, saucy Amy clad in an elegant wrap dress, singing “Stronger Than Me” in a small jazz club, is the one I keep flashing back to, days later, as a counter to the awfulness of her unraveling in the film’s latter frames.

The filmmakers are unstinting in their portrayals of Amy’s father, Mitch Winehouse (who initially cooperated with Kapadia, but has since labeled the documentary “misleading”), and Blake Fielder-Civil, the love of her life, as twin negative influences (if not outright villains).

Mitch, a jazz-singing cab driver, was carrying on an affair with another woman and absent for much of Amy’s adolescence. In the film, her parents explain that they thought that Amy was “OK” with the separation and divorce, but Amy tells a different story of being a teen acting out her resentment and her longing for the stability her parents couldn’t give her.

Still, Amy adored her father, even as she laid the roots of her self-destructive impulses and attraction to bad men at his feet in the song “What Is it About Men” from her 2003 debut album Frank. She had “Daddy’s Girl” tattooed on her left arm, and in Amy, you see how Mitch repays her affection: after her first brush with a near-overdose, he quashes her friends’ attempts to get her into rehab, not wanting to forfeit her concert bookings. She defers to him, and backs out of the rehab plan. The lyrics to Amy’s breakthrough hit “Rehab” scroll onto the movie screen: “I ain’t got the time/ And if my daddy thinks I’m fine/ Just try to make me go to rehab, I won’t go, go go.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the song countless times and thought that the “daddy” of the lyric simply referred to a lover. And now it’s impossible to hear that song the same way again.

Later in the film, while Amy is on a tropical retreat trying to get sober, Mitch — still capitalizing on his daughter’s success —  invades her privacy with a camera crew from his own reality TV show and manufactures drama by dragging a fragile, unwilling (but ultimately obedient) Amy over to take a picture with two fans he met on the beach. (For a deeper analysis of Amy’s father issues, see this fascinating piece by psychotherapist Binnie Klein.)

As for Fielder-Civil, this guy practically had “bad news” tattooed on his forehead. We see Amy fall hard for him, become his companion in booze and ever-harder drugs. It’s painful to watch Amy’s body language change when she’s around Fielder-Civil; without him, she’s lively, funny, brash, but in his presence, she girlishly flicks her eyes up at him, clutches his arm, leans into him. He dumps her, she spirals, but then when she gets hot with Back to Black, he comes sniffing around again and all is lost. Again, Amy’s lyrics — “You Know I’m No Good,” “Back to Black,” “Love Is a Losing Game” — tell the story. Seeing them placed in context in Amy, makes you hear the Back to Black album anew as a brilliant, immediate and heart-piercing piece of confessional songwriting.

While Amy takes clear aim at Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, her mother Janis is portrayed (in her own words) as an ineffectual mother incapable of “standing up to” her strong-willed daughter. She recounts how, when the teenaged Amy told her that she had discovered a new diet that consisted of throwing up after every meal, she put Amy’s bulimia down to “a phase.” Amy’s lifelong bulimia contributed to her death of heart failure. There are heroes in Amy — Lauren and Juliet, two loyal friends from girlhood, her friend and first manager Nick Shymansky, her final bodyguard Andrew Morris (Alex Winehouse does not appear in the movie) — but their efforts to save Amy from implosion are no match for the perfect storm of addiction, fame, inadequately addressed mental health issues and the scars of family dysfunction.

After seeing Amy, it’s fair to ponder the other emotions that might lie under the grief that infuses “A Family Portrait.”

(“Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” and “You Know I’m No Good” run through Nov. 1 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Amy is playing in theaters now.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

I went to Live Aid and this is my story

Pic, so It did happen.
Pic, so it did happen.

July 13, 1985. Thirty years ago today. The anniversary took me by surprise. Live Aid is not something I think about a lot, except in the context of, “Oh yeah, wait a minute  — I did see Led Zeppelin!”  It was my first and last music festival, for reasons that I’ll get into in a minute.

When Live Aid happened, I was a rock critic for the Boston Phoenix and my editors Milo Miles and John Ferguson had the big idea to send me to cover it. I said yes, because Led Zeppelin. I should also mention that I was a bit on the sheltered side for a 27-year-old. The flight to Philadelphia was only the second time I’d been on a plane. So there we were, my husband and I, with tickets in hand, swaggering like big-time rock critic royalty on the Phoenix’s dime. And I do mean dime. Expense was spared. But we didn’t care because, Led Zeppelin.

How unworldly were we? We knew we were going to a 14-hour festival. We knew the temperature was supposed to be approaching 100 and humid. We knew we would be in the sun. We went to the 7-11 and bought a few bottles of water and some bags of cookies and chips. We didn’t think to pack any real food. We thought, Oh, there has to be food there. HAHAHAHAHA!

Needless to say, on a personal level, none of this turned out well. There was no food, only hot dogs that ran out by early afternoon. There was no water, but lots of Cherry Coke. It was unbelievably hot. People were fainting. The irony is not lost on me: This was a concert for African famine relief, and a bunch of privileged white Americans were hot , thirsty and hungry. Boo-hoo us.

So there I was, freaking out in the blazing sun, scribbling obsessive notes, because I knew that I had to deliver next week’s cover story in only a two-day turnaround, which I had never done. Yes, I saw Zep (let us not speak of Phil Collins on drums), and it was surreal and beautiful to finally get to sing along to “Stairway to Heaven” with my junior high idols. I saw Madonna, still in the backlash from those stupid nude photos, tell the crowd, “I ain’t taking off shit!” as she danced in the heat wearing five layers of paisley ’80s fashion.

And then we went back to the hotel, where I started throwing up and hallucinating from dehydration and my husband dragged me down to the all-night coffee shop and force-fed me oatmeal at 3 a.m. I should have been in an ER with IV fluids in my arm, but we were just kids. So that’s my Live Aid story. Not exactly the brown acid at Woodstock. But my discomfort was temporary. The African famine the concert was staged to help? Still there. So what exactly was Live Aid all about?

I came home with a massive three-day headache and wrote a huge cover piece for the Phoenix in which I attempted to answer that question, a feat which astounds me to this day. I pulled the piece out to read just now, and it didn’t make me cringe. I wish that I could link to it, but when the Phoenix folded, its online archive did too. Who needs history?

So I’m going to type out the first few grafs here.

“The Songs Remain the Same

PHILADELPHIA – “This is your Woodstock and it’s long overdue!” shouted Joan Baez to kick off the American portion of the July 13 Live Aid concert, the transglobal rock-fest-telethon organized by Band Aid founder (and sometimes Boomtown Rat) Bob Geldof to benefit African famine relief.

Oh sure, Joan, this was just like Woodstock — if Woodstock had been held in a football stadium on I-95 instead of a sleepy hamlet, or if Woodstock had been partially underwritten by Pepsi, Chevrolet and AT&T. This was just like Woodstock, except that if you weren’t there, you could watch it on TV, and if you were there, you could look forward to reliving it through the magic of your VCR. This was just like Woodstock, if Woodstock had been MC’d by screen stars like Jack Nicholson, Chevy Chase and Don Johnson, or if at Woodstock, New Cokes had cost $1.25 ($2.50 with ice – so nobody would throw cubes). This was just like Woodstock, except that nobody died and nobody was born (though one fan was airlifted from JFK Stadium to undergo his long-awaited kidney transplant). Former hippies and rads may rhapsodize about Live Aid being the dawning of a new age of benign high tech and renewal of political commitment in rock, but one lesson of the ’60s remains: the revolution will not be televised. And it won’t be sponsored by multinational corporations , either.

The crowd at JFK had not gathered to flaunt its independence or power or solidarity to a hostile establishment — rock and roll is too well established for that. After all, what better sign of mainstream legitimacy than a telethon? No this concert pounded home with a thud the ideology of rock in the ’80s. The hippie idealism of the ’60s passed into ’70s self-analysis, which in turn mutated into fashionable selfish consumerism and shabby patriotism; and in the process rock lost some of its liberal/underdog/outcast sheen. You can no longer go to a rock concert, especially one this ostentatious, and be certain that the person seated next to you is on your side. The London version, at Wembley Stadium, was presided over by the Prince and Princess of Wales; at JFK, a video of the Russian pop band Autograf was greeted with a modest chorus of boos, and most of the bed sheet banners bore T-shirt slogans like “Feed the World” — it’s unlikely that the TV cameras lingered over the messily hung banner in the west section that read, “Agribiz=Death.”

This was the pop world’s first post-MTV rockfest — huge Diamond Vision screens for those camped in the far reaches of JFK’s infield, and little time for fidgeting. The 20-minute sets zipped by at an MTV pace; between acts at JFK, you could watch live-via-satellite footage of the show at Wembley, or videos done especially for the occasion … To make us feel more at home, they even gave us commercials; Lionel Richie’s Pepsi ad, AT&T’s Reach Out and Feed Someone spot. A decade ago, who’d have thought you could gather 101,000 rock fans into a stadium in 100-degree heat, turn on the TV, and keep them amused? Ah, progress.”

I also have a tape of Live Aid that I recorded on my VCR. I never watched it.

@Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

FFS: A mind-meld you can dance to

The drummer is always the first to go.
The drummer is always the first one to go.

 

Consider the Cronut. Croissant, donut — what could go wrong? A lot, actually. Some things, while fine on their own, are not meant to be combined. But once in a while, a collaboration comes along that’s so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious. Like peanut butter and marshmallow creme. Or, as it turns out, Franz Ferdinand and Sparks.  FFS, the new, self-titled blending of these two outwardly disparate ingredients, is a luscious pop treat, salty and sweet with sticky melodies and savory wit. I mean this in the best way possible: FFS is a big, satisfying Fluffernutter of a debut album.

But first, a digression …

I won’t lie. I never really paid much attention to Sparks until late last year when Franz Ferdinand announced the collaboration. Although I was alive and listening to music in 1974 when Sparks’ breakthrough album Kimono My House was released, L.A.-raised brothers Ron and Russell Mael were too weird for my Stones- and- Zep-loving teenaged self. I knew who they were, from reading Creem magazine (androgynous, falsetto-singing Russell certainly was easy on the eyes), but they weren’t in heavy rotation on the radio station I listened to. Also, Ron’s stern visage and Hitler mustache creeped me out. Some years later, when I was writing about music for a living, I could have and should have given Sparks a chance, but I didn’t. This was wrong and I’m sorry.

So thank you to Franz Ferdinand, a band that I’ve long admired, for challenging their fans to become acquainted with the Maels’ catalogue (22 albums deep). I wanted to hear what drew the impeccable Glasgow art-pop-dance-rock-whatevers to the eccentric Maels, who are now in their late sixties. I started by reading this exhaustive overview of Sparks’ first 20 albums. That led to crate-digging and long trawls through You Tube, and I quickly discovered two things: I love Sparks, and, I am an idiot for not realizing this decades ago.

If I had, I would have known that Sparks got to operatic glam-rock before Queen did, perfected the naif-ish narrative voice before David Byrne and made techno-disco before Daft Punk. I would have had years more pleasure listening to the cerebral/surreal humor of their lyrics, which are like Monty Python with a poker face to match Ron’s. I would have discovered sooner that Kimono My House and Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins (1995) were two of my favorite albums, ever. And when I first heard the shouted-in-unison chorus of Franz Ferdinand’s “What She Came For,” I would have jumped up and said, “Aha! That reminds me of ‘The Rhythm Thief’ from Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven” album!

Live and learn.

*******

The story FFS is telling about their union is that the Maels approached Franz Ferdinand back in 2004 when the latter were blowing up with “Take Me Out.” It isn’t hard to figure out why Sparks dug the ambitious and unorthodox structure of “Take Me Out”; with its front-loaded verses, it’s all chorus and riff and, in 2004, sounded like nothing else on the radio.

But the more you listen to both bands, the more you see the deeper connections between them. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks share an omnivorous approach to pop music, playing with genre and instrumentation (neither band ever met an electronic keyboard sound it didn’t like). Ron Mael and Alex Kapranos favor intelligent, cheeky jigsaw-puzzle assemblages of lyrics that often become part of the rhythm — listen to the heady clashes of consonants on Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” and Franz Ferdinand’s “The Fallen.” And both bands have a heart, though they don’t wear it on their sleeves;  there is deep empathy beneath the deceptively jokey premise of Sparks’ “The Ghost of Liberace,” for example, and an aching wistfulness shadows the philosophical posturing of Franz’s “Fresh Strawberries.”

FFS choose to lead with their hearts on the new album. The first track, “Johnny Delusional,” is a sad song masquerading as a sunny one, about a poor sap who’s “borderline attractive from afar,” and in love with a woman who doesn’t know he exists. It opens with some stately Ron Mael piano chords, then turns into a bouncing disco beat that would mash-up nicely with Sparks’ Gratuitous Sax version of (maybe) their masterpiece, “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” Kapranos and Russell Mael alternate on the verses but blend so seamlessly on the multi-tracked chorus and outro that it’s hard to tell where one voice ends and the other begins. Like “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?,” “Johnny Delusional” is a song about a nobody yearning to be noticed and loved: “Though I want you/ I know I haven’t a chance/ Still I want you/ Johnny Delusional here.” Like “My Way,” the song takes a minor-chord dip on the choruses that hits you like a pang of despair.

“Johnny Delusional” sets the theme of the first four songs — little men who want to be big. There seems to be a direct relationship between “Johnny Delusional” and the song that follows,  “Call Girl.” Over a suave synth dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on Franz’s Tonight, Kapranos and Russell sing as one in the familiar Sparks narrative voice: here’s another earnest sap who can’t see the romantic truth staring him in the face. Like Johnny, he’s in love with an unreachable woman. That she’s a prostitute apparently fails to register: “I gave up blow and Adderall for you/ So I’d have dough and spend it all on you/ So call girl, why don’t you give me a ring/ Call girl, pick up and ring.”

The next two songs, “Dictator’s Son” and “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” look at males with delusions of grandeur from two sides of the same coin. “Dictator’s Son”  is a darkly comical profile of an autocrat-in-training, “born with a silver gun,” from “a nation of fearful men and women afraid of them,” as he heads to L.A. to bask in Western culture (“I’m into Hugo Boss/dental floss … coed’s knees, BLT’s”). With its staccato circular piano riff and Russell’s falsetto dominant in the mix, this is the most Sparks-sounding song on the album. But there is nothing comical about the haunting “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” which sounds like the nihilistic last thoughts of a terrorist (or an average, everyday mass murderer) justifying his suicide mission. The atmospheric ballad is sung with a quiet chill by Kapranos, with Russell’s soaring falsetto joining in on the “no heroes, just those who care more for their legend than their life” chorus, the melody of which ranks as one of the most beautiful that Sparks or Franz have ever written.

I also like the back-to-back placement of “Things I Won’t Get,” a list of unattainable intellectual and material goals sung artlessly by Franz guitarist Nick McCarthy, and the social-climbing satire “The Power Couple.” Where “Things” offers a sweet grasp on what’s truly important in life (“When I see you lying by my side looking extra clean/ I’m in a state where I don’t mind/ My thoughts turn obscene”), “The Power Couple” lunges forward on a marching piano and martial drumming, with a choir of Alexes and Russells, all fiercely calculated ambition, declaring, “We must make a good impression/ We must make a GREAT impression!”

The balance of FFS is insistently danceable and fabulously strange. The clever, frenetic electronic pop of “Police Encounters” and “So Desu Ne” fuses the sound and sensibilities of both bands into something vaguely familiar but, ultimately, not easily pegged to either one.  And, as an introvert, I have been waiting all my life for “Piss Off,” a joyous sing-along halfway between a football chant and a 1940s Hollywood musical showstopper that gives the middle finger to all the clattering, nattering intrusions on precious solitude.

The album’s magnum opus, clocking in at 6:42, is the self-referential and very funny operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work,” a dazzling mosaic of shifting tempos, styles and orchestration reminiscent of the chamber pop of Sparks’ Lil’ Beethoven album. The lyrics chart the stages of collaboration from hopeful beginnings (“you start off deferential and strangely reverential”) to verbal axe-throwing, Russell in full diva falsetto trilling, “I don’t need your navel-gazing!” and Kapranos responding, “I don’t get your way of phrasing!” All six members of FFS enter the fray, each singing lines on the mid-section (yes, even Franz bassist “Silent” Bob Hardy!). And there’s a great moment when Franz Ferdinand feigns, “Oh, screw it,” and asserts its will with the most overtly Franz-sounding passage on the record, all slicing drums and stabby guitars and Kapranos crowing, “I ain’t no collaborator … I am the sadistic young usurper … If I ever need a father, it won’t be you, old man!”

Obviously, he’s joking. What FFS have made together is truly rare; the album doesn’t sound or feel like an awkward grafting of one band onto another. Instead, it’s as if Franz Ferdinand and Sparks have created a musical playground where the cool kids and the freaks could hang together outside of labels and comfort zones. It’s liberating to hear Franz let out their inner nerd, and gratifying to hear Sparks playing modern pop again. FFS begin a European tour this month, with U.S. dates to come in the fall, and it’ll be interesting to see what the fans of each band make of this new entity. Some advice? Don’t let the Hitler mustache scare you away.

“Johnny Delusional” by FFS (Official Audio)

“When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” by Sparks

 

And then, there’s this.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Paradise by the refrigerator light

Perfect harmony?
Perfect harmony?

 

The Mad Men finale was overstuffed and all over the map, emotionally and geographically. Peggy did get to have it all, more or less (a generous nod to Peggy/Stan shippers). Joan chose her career and lost her eleventh-hour, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, but who cares about him anyway? Roger and Megan’s mother lived happily ever after (I never could get behind this weird and pointless coupling). Pete flew off to become the King of Wichita.

And Don … His story, and the series, could not have ended more perfectly. In the previous two episodes, Don plunged deeper into the Dante-like symbolic death that began in the first episode of season 6, “The Doorway”. In “Lost Horizon,” he disappeared from McCann-Erickson as if he was shedding his skin;  in “The Milk and Honey Route,” his stolen identity in shambles, he head out on a road trip searching for salvation in the form of the elusive Diana, but ended up in an Oklahoma motel that practically screamed “Purgatory.”

As the finale, “Person to Person” opened, it was late October 1970 (only a few weeks after the action in “The Milk and Honey Route”) and Don was racing a test car in the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Apparently, some time after we left him at the Oklahoma bus stop in “The Milk and Honey Route,” he hooked up with a couple of car racers who agreed to take him to California in exchange for his staking their expenses. We soon see him talking on the phone to Sally, who betrays her mother’s confidence and tells her father that Betty is dying. In one of several moments that teased viewers’ hopes for “closure,” Don tells Sally, and then, in another collect call to Betty, that he’s coming home to care for his kids. Could it be that Don is going to finally get it together and be a selfless, responsible family man?

Nah. You could almost hear Matthew Weiner chuckling “Gotcha!” Both the resolute, resigned Betty and the newly grown-up Sally reject Don’s attempt at reconciliation. Betty tells him that she wants the boys to live with her brother and sister-in-law. So Don, a.), gets drunk, and, b.), continues on to California with the racer boys.

It’s no surprise that Don is headed for California. That’s where his lives as Don Draper and Dick Whitman converge. In the finale, he washes up on the doorstep of Stephanie, the hippie niece of the original Don Draper’s (now deceased) widow, Anna. When last seen, Stephanie was broke and pregnant, asking Don for money. Now, Don wants to give her Anna’s wedding ring, last worn by Megan. But Stephanie rejects the family heirloom. She tells Don — she calls him “Dick” — that she doesn’t understand or need his concern for her welfare. She’s heading out to a “retreat up the Coast” — probably the Esalen Institute in Big Sur — and Don tags along.

Don is an amusing fish out of water at Esalen, scowling through encounter groups as earnest, emotional souls try to reach their “human potential.” At one point, when Stephanie confesses her guilt over having hated being a mother (she gave up the baby), Don tells her the same thing he told Peggy after she gave birth to her out-of-wedlock child — to “move on,” “pretend it never happened.” Indeed, a heartbreaking, if somewhat conservative, thread that runs through the finale and the series itself is the depiction of children as collateral damage of sexual freedom and divorce amid the social upheaval of the ’60s (poor Sally and her brothers). Don and Stephanie argue and she leaves, taking her car and abandoning him at the retreat.

Once again, Don has been led to a place he doesn’t want to be, by a woman from whom he sought salvation, love and family, and he’s been left in limbo. He’s been rejected by his Draper family. He’s been rejected by his Whitman family. If he had sought to shed “Don Draper” and return to being “Dick Whitman,” that path has been closed off. He calls Peggy collect and breaks down; she tells him to “come home” to McCann. “They’d take you back in a minute … Don’t you want to work on Coca-Cola?” He hangs up and falls to the ground immobile.

But then along comes another women to guide him, an earth mother-y Esalen instructor who picks him up and coaxes him into the encounter group she’s heading. Don sits in the circle, looking lost and glassy-eyed. And then a middle-aged man named Leonard — pale, average-looking — starts talking about feeling invisible in his life, about wanting love, but never quite getting it. The man tells a story about a dream in which he was on a shelf in the refrigerator, waiting in the dark for the door to open and the light to come on and to be chosen. Don watches with increasing sympathy. When Leonard begins to sob, Don unexpectedly goes to him and hugs him, sobbing with him.

The scene is rich with imagery. Leonard wears a light blue sweater the color of holiness and healing; Leonard’s story of being ordinary, unwanted, unloved resonates with Dick, the whore’s unwanted child who grew up craving family and love. When Don embraces Leonard, he’s embracing his Inner Dick Whitman. He becomes whole.

If Don’s descent into Hell began with his affair with Sylvia, and if Oklahoma was Purgatory, then Esalen is Paradise. It just takes him a while to realize it. In the final shots of the episode, Don is standing on a cliff overlooking the ocean, haloed by the sun. And then he’s dressed in white, eyes closed, cross-legged on a bluff, greeting the morning with retreat-attendees of assorted age and race. As the camera pans in on Don’s face, the meditation leader guides the flock to give gratitude for “the lives we’ve led, the lives we’re yet to lead, a new day, new ideas, a new you.” A bell tinkles. The group, including Don, chant “Om.” Don gives a slow smile, a bell dings again. And then we see the famous “I’d Like to Teach the Word to Sing” Coke ad from 1971, with young people of all races and nationalities standing on a hillside, equating world peace with Coke. The episode ends with the last line of the jingle: “It’s the real thing.”

The only ambiguity in this ending is in its intent. Read one way, Don/Dick’s smile suggests that he has made peace with himself, has survived the traumatic ’60s and will enter the ’70s as a more enlightened person, a “new you.” Maybe he went home to McCann, sober and self-aware, and used his Esalen experience to create the Coke ad, because he genuinely wanted to teach the world to sing. (See photo below.)

But read it another way, and the tiny bell that rings after Don smiles becomes the cha-ching of a killer advertising idea. Don has finally made peace with his past, and in doing so, it cleared his brain of self-doubt, absolved him of his bone-deep shame; freed from these distractions, Don is now cleansed of outdated ideas about how to speak to the desires of the consuming public. The juices are flowing again. And, if we really want to take the cynical road about the result of Don’s epiphany, the Coke ad in its time represented the end of whatever was authentic about the hippie ethos. It co-opted “love and peace” to sell sugar water.

I’ll take the latter interpretation, in all its bittersweetness and complexity. Sure, Don Draper didn’t really create Coke’s “Hilltop” ad in real life. But in the Mad Men universe, it has Don Draper written all over it. Don spent the series searching for “the real thing,” needing to believe that it existed; he based his greatest ads, which hit the mark like spare, poetic arrows to the soul, on that need. In the end, what he takes from his journey is that his emptiness and loneliness is not unique, but his talent for reinvention is. But has he really changed? Maybe the smile is Don welcoming back his true self, the lie that is the real thing.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Left:  Front desk employee at Don's retreat. Right: Girl from actual "Hilltop" Coke ad.
Left: Front desk employee at Don’s retreat. Right: Girl from actual “Hilltop” Coke ad.