Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 2): Originals

(Courtesy of Netflix)

As I wrote in Part 1: The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose...

(Continue reading Part 1 here.)

“Rolling Thunder Revue”: Dylan goes electric

“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story,” Martin Scorsese’s magic trick of a Netflix mockumentary, had me hoodwinked for an embarrassingly long time. I finally twigged to what was going on more than halfway through the film when Michael Murphy appeared in character as former presidential candidate Jack Tanner, the role he played in Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman’s celebrated 1988 HBO political mockumentary “Tanner ’88.” And then I laughed out loud.

“Rolling Thunder Revue” is a carnival midway attraction of a movie, in keeping with the traveling circus atmosphere of Dylan’s shambolic 1976 Rolling Thunder tour of North America. Scorsese’s film is mostly recycled from concert and behind the scenes footage for “Renaldo and Clara,” the movie Dylan directed while on tour, in which he, Joan Baez and a horde of musicians and traveling companions played themselves but also not-themselves. (The original footage was shot by Howard Alk, David Meyers and Paul Goldsmith.) “Renaldo and Clara” was a critical flop when it was released; “Rolling Thunder Revue” is basically that movie reassembled by Scorsese with a wink and a nod.

I’ve watched “Rolling Thunder Revue” twice and I still can’t make up my mind whether Scorsese’s smoke-and-mirrors additions work. For instance, he plants ringers like actress Sharon Stone, purporting to have been on the tour as a teenager, and performance artist Martin Von Hasselberg as Stefan Van Dorp, the disgruntled alleged director of the original footage, among the interview segments with real-life Rolling Thunder participants. Was piling an extra-level of trickery onto the already tricky “Renaldo and Clara” overkill, like TP-ing a house on Halloween and egging it for good measure?

Maybe. But it doesn’t get in the way of the film’s main event, its exhilarating concert footage. Dylan is a wild man in the concert scenes, as he leads a rotating roster of musicians (the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson, a young T-Bone Burnett, and violinist Scarlet Rivera, working her Gypsy queen persona to the hilt) through stomping rock versions of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” as well as sweeping cinematic narratives like “Isis” and “Hurricane.” The camera often tight on his face, Dylan is incandescent with desire and rage, shouting out lyrics like they’re his last will and testament.

For me, watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” was like opening a time capsule and rediscovering things I’d forgotten and never fully appreciated, like how astonishingly sexy and charismatic this stage incarnation of Bob Dylan was. And the gender-fluidity of his ’70’s rock-star look — eyeliner, scarves, fresh flowers rimming his wide-brimmed hat — is startlingly modern. His face smeared with white mime’s makeup (remnants of “Renaldo and Clara”), “Rolling Thunder Revue” becomes one trippy masquerade.

The greatest singer-songwriter of our time has always managed to remain a changeling and an enigma; you were never truly sure if the Dylan you were seeing today would be the Dylan you’d see tomorrow. He pops up as one of Scorsese’s present-day interview subjects in the film, polishing his myth by giving characteristically flinty answers. But watching “Rolling Thunder Revue” again, I realized that in one of his faux-interview answers, Dylan is handing us a clue to the game he and Scorsese are playing, as well as summing up the theme of the movie (and Dylan’s career): “Life isn’t about finding yourself … Life is about creating yourself.”

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Bruce Springsteen: Like a rhinestone cowboy

In his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run” and the long-running “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce Springsteen tells us that the Boss was a character that he created, and that the Bruce Springsteen we think we know is a figment of our collective imagination. The soul-searching and naked confessions that make up Springsteen’s output since 2016 flip that Bob Dylan quote on its head: lately, Springsteen’s life has been about un-creating himself in order to find himself.

The solo studio album he released in 2019, “Western Stars,” didn’t move me. With its narrow focus on aging solitary men reaching the end of the line, “Western Stars” revealed Springsteen’s head as a claustrophobia-inducing place to be at the moment. I also thought the recreations of lushly orchestrated Jimmy Webb-style country-pop of the ’60’s and ’70’s were pretty but airless. I wanted something more from Springsteen’s first studio record since 2012, some acknowledgement that we woke up one day and everything had changed. I wanted him to articulate my pain and grief over the state of our country. Instead, he released this.

I missed the concert movie built around “Western Stars” when it had a short run in theaters. I set my sights on a rumored E Street Band album and tour on the horizon and moved on. And then one day I was driving in the car and heard the live version of “Sundown” from the “Western Stars” soundtrack album and I had a small epiphany. Played live with a band, string section and backup singers, “Sundown” came buoyantly alive. Springsteen’s singing was looser and warmer, freed from the constraints of the studio version’s fussed-over production. In my original review, I said that the “The Wayfarer,” “There Goes My Miracle” and “Sundown” (songs on the record that I actually like) could have been sung by Sinatra in the ’70’s. And sure enough, the live versions from the “Western Stars” soundtrack really swing, Jack.

So here’s the epiphany. I still don’t love the studio album or the precious years spent on solo introspective confessions and summations, but the “Western Stars’ soundtrack clicked something into place for me. I can finally appreciate what Springsteen is doing with all of this, and why.

Here’s a guy who has spent the better part of his career being “Bruce Springsteen,” who, as he tells us in the autobiography and the Broadway show, isn’t really him. He has tried to speak to us as plain old Bruce Springsteen before, most notably on “Tunnel of Love,” “Lucky Town” and parts of “Devils and Dust,” about his flaws and failings, his struggles, his love for his wife and kids. But now, at 70, his desire to tell us what he needs to tell us, to show himself, seems to have become more urgent. The “Western Stars” live album helped me understand that I was focused on the theme and sound of the songs, when the act of Springsteen singing them was the main point. This is grown-up music. And doesn’t Springsteen deserve to have some time to be his grown-up self, singing swinging grown-up songs with his baby by his side, and not having to get up on stage and conjure the “Bruce Springsteen” he used to be at 25 or 30 or 40? Springsteen will tour with the E Street Band again and for those three hours, we’ll all be transported back to 1975 again. Until then, we owe it to him to let him work out what he needs to work out in order to be at peace.

The “Western Stars” concert version ends with a cover of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” an irresistible sing-along as well as a fitting homage to one of the inspirations for the album. It’s my choice for cover of the year. And in a way, Bruce Springsteen is the Rhinestone Cowboy, the larger-than-life, star-spangled hero, “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know.” Springsteen sings the song with a self-deprecating smile in his voice. His performance is jovial but not jokey; he sounds like he’s having a blast, but the choice of this song carries an echo of the message he puts forth more somberly in “Springsteen on Broadway” — the person we see on stage isn’t always the person we think we’re seeing. And at this point in his career, he’s earned the right to take off those heavy rhinestones once in a while.

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Prince “Originals”: Album of the year

(Courtesy of Virginia Turblett/The Prince Estate)

Three years gone and Prince still manages to put out an album that blows away what most living artists released this year. OK, so Prince had nothing to do with the conceptualizing or release of “Originals”; it’s a well-chosen and sequenced project of the Prince Estate, consisting of Prince’s demo tracks of songs that were ultimately recorded by other artists. If he was still with us, Prince might never have consented to let this corner of his vast trove of unreleased work see daylight. But now that it’s out, “Originals” has the impact of a flex from beyond the grave; it’s equal to the diminutive genius tossing his guitar into the air after owning that all-star Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as if to say, “Y’all see what I just did?”

By now, none of us should be surprised by Prince’s eternal ability to surprise us. And yet, “Originals” does exactly that. Only one of its 15 tracks, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” has been previously released in Prince form (a live version appeared on his ’90s greatest hits compilation “The Hits/The B-Sides”). These demos of songs Prince gave away to other artists date from the ’80’s, his most fertile period. Most of the tracks went to acts he produced under his “Jamie Starr/Starr Company” moniker, like Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia 6 and Morris Day and The Time. Others went to outside acts like the Bangles (“Manic Monday”), Martika (“Love … Thy Will Be Done”) and — well, why not? — Kenny Rogers (“You’re My Love”).

“Gave away” doesn’t really get to the heart of what Prince did with these songs. He may have let others record them, giving several careers the kiss of life, but in return he breathed his presence and influence into every note of their performances, every inch of the recording tape. His original Warner Bros. contract allowed him to recruit and produce artists for the label. But he did even more than that. Prince was like a nonthreatening version of Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort. Voldemort guaranteed immortality by secreting pieces of himself into seven objects and living things; Prince produced other artists in his own image, magnifying his sound and extending his influence beyond his home studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was always thinking big.

We always knew Prince was the wizard behind the curtain of so many acts, but it’s a jolt to hear just how much influence he had on the finished recordings. As “Originals” reveals, these tracks aren’t demos so much as blueprints. The Morris Day and The Time song “Jungle Love” exactly follows Prince’s demo, every “o-ee-o-ee-o” and squawk, right down to the shout of “Somebody bring me a mirror!” (Prince, Morris Day and original Time guitarist Jesse Johnson get co-writing credit on “Jungle Love.”)

Likewise, there’s little breathing room between Prince’s demo of “Gigolos Get Lonely Too” and The Time’s version (although Prince sounds like the lonelier gigolo), or his “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” and Taja Sevelle’s or his “Sex Shooter” and Apollonia’s. For “Manic Monday,” the Bangles gave Prince the keys and let him drive; he arranged the backing vocals and they kept his flower-power-y piano riff from the demo. It’s a kick to hear his lead vocal here, and his keyboard-playing stands out as lighter and more joyful in this draft of the production.

Prince’s demos for Sheila E. in particular — “The Glamorous Life,” “Noon Rendezvous,” “Dear Michelangelo” and “Holly Rock” — are a fascinating glimpse into their symbiotic relationship. Sheila E. receives sole or shared credit on all of these songs, but her finished vocals strictly adhere to Prince’s emphases and inflections from the demos. On his crackling version of “Holly Rock” (a close sibling of the smoking jam “Housequake” from “Sign o’ the Times”), Prince becomes Sheila E., singing out lines like, “Sheila E’s my name/ Holly Rock’s my game/I’m funky as I wanna be/Line up a hundred I swear to God/I rock ’em till they just can’t see.” Performing the song in the movie “Krush Groove,” Sheila’s vocal again follows Prince’s guide vocal. And with her peek-a-boo lace suit, pompadour hairdo and hip thrust/kick split dance moves, Sheila E. becomes Prince.

The Sheila E. demos aren’t the only songs here that reveal their gender-fluidity when Prince sings them. On “Make-Up,” recorded by Vanity 6, he narrates a cosmetic routine to a repeating Kraftwerkian technofunk riff , his monotone at once signifying dominatrix and sex robot. The performance gets sexier as the gender identity of the singer gets blurrier (“I guess I’ll wear my camisole”). I always assumed that Prince’s blended male-female Love Symbol stood for the sexual communion of his music. So “Originals” was a “holy shit” revelation for me about what Prince might have really been saying when he adopted that symbol as his own. Then again, maybe I should have taken the hint when he sang “I’m not a woman/ I’m not a man/ I am something that you’ll never understand” in “I Would Die 4 U.”

Wholly inhabiting these songs, Prince slips easily into different skins, different personas — the horny jester of “Jungle Love,” the working woman of “Manic Monday,” the transcendent spiritual being of “Love … Thy Will be Done.” It’s as if we’re hearing facets of personality, complexities of self, all of Prince’s contained multitudes. And then we come to the final song, the “Nothing Compares 2 U” demo that’s so sparsely orchestrated and intimate that the burbling electric piano chord may as well be a pulse, the percussion a clock winding down. “Nothing Compares 2 U” sounds like a voice and a soul, existing beyond space and time and skin and bones — the voice of Prince, the one and only, and that’s the God’s honest truth.

Music and TV favorites, 2019 (Part 1): Got to be real

The President (such as he is) of the United States is a liar. It’s no wonder the music and TV that mattered most to me in 2019 was all about the search for what’s true and real. All of my most-played and most-pondered favorites featured some variation of authentic selves breaking free from suppression, performers grappling with the limits of persona and the soul-truths that can sometimes only be revealed through the act of striking a pose.

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(Courtesy Elektra Records)

The Highwomen: A seat at the table

The name is a pun on and a tribute to the Cash-Kristofferson-Haggard-Jennings Mount Rushmore of country supergroups. But The Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby — see their project as more of a collective than a supergroup. And that’s exactly what this debut record sounds like. Their group singing conveys a whole, a sense of sisterhood and community to which all are welcome and all belong. In a genre where women artists have to fight for airplay (a 2019 study showed that women artists comprised only 11.3 percent of the country radio airplay on 2018 year-end industry charts), “The Highwomen” feels as much like a movement as it does a musical happening.

The title track is a rewrite of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” in which the male archetypes of rugged adventurers (outlaw, seafarer, dam builder, astronaut) are replaced by women protectors, activists and healers. The Salem witch, the migrant mother trying to cross the Southern border, the civil rights Freedom Rider (sung by Yola, an Americana/soul artist from the U.K.) are all portrayed as a threat to the patriarchal, misogynistic societies in which they live. In the migrant and Freedom Rider verses, the women are doubly persecuted for race as well as gender. Sung in unison, the final chorus — “and we’ll come back again and again and again and again and again” — conjures women as a resilient force through time, determined to right wrongs and speak truth in a world that underestimates and fears us. If that sounds corny, think of Christine Blasey Ford, Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill testifying before Congress at personal and professional risk. Highwomen, all.

The two other statement songs on “The Highwomen” are similarly lifted by the sisterly blend of the group’s voices. “Redesigning Women” is a sparky country-pop homage to the way Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire made “women’s lib” acceptable for their fans in past decades.The women in the song go to work, race home to breastfeed the baby, take on their families’ emotional burdens and drink a lot of wine. “How do we do it? /How do we do it? /Make it up as we go along,” goes the bridge. The message here is that there is no “right” way to be a woman, so we need to stop beating ourselves up trying to be perfect.

“Crowded Table” glows with a similar generosity. It’s a song of hope at a time when hope is defiance: “I want a house with a crowded table/And a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/And bring us back together when the day is done.” The hearth and home imagery both calls to mind and undermines the traditional notion of “a woman’s place.” Women are doing most of the labor of resisting the Trump regime — working in groups, organizing protests, sitting at kitchen tables calling elected officials and writing postcards to voters. The “house” of “Crowded Table” is America. And while the song’s warm folk-rock vibe reminds me of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, it conjures no cozy retreat from the world. It welcomes the world in.

The smaller, more personal songs on “The Highwomen” pack an emotional wallop as well. “If She Ever Leaves Me” was written by Shires and her partner Jason Isbell (who plays on the record) for Carlile to sing. And Carlile’s vulnerable, full-hearted wobble on the declaration “I’ve loved her in secret/I’ve loved her out loud” tells you all you need to know about the cost of loving in secret and the liberation of loving who you’re meant to love.

One song that’s not on the record but should have been is The Highwomen’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” (it’s on the soundtrack to the film “The Kitchen”). It’s a faithful cover, but with a crisper beat than the original. The song is an incantation, a curse ex-lovers level at one another. But when “The Chain” is liberated from the sexual merry-go-round that was the Mac and sung by four women joined together in righteous anger, it becomes something more dangerous and thrilling. As part of Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks’s crystal-vision sorcery was often misinterpreted as air-headedness by the male rock critic establishment. On “The Chain,” the Highwomen sound like a whole coven assembled to avenge Stevie Nicks and how she gave voice to the power of women’s love and rage. They are the daughters of the witch the male-driven music industry couldn’t burn.

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The category is “realness”: “Pose,” Lizzo and “Schitt’s Creek”

“If you feel like a girl, then you real like a girl,” Lizzo sings in “Like a Girl” from her unstoppable 2019 album “Cuz I Love You.” Her body positivity and self-actualization anthem “Juice” is the dance song of the year, but every track on the record slams, makes you move. And on the album’s other giant hit, “Truth Hurts,” she asks the question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds since the circus came to town on Election Day 2016: “Why men great till they gotta be great?”

Lizzo is the definition of exuberance, from her rich, sunny voice (reminiscent sometimes of Chaka Khan’s) to her boasts (“I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m a hundred per-cent that bitch“). Taking her stage cues from Queen Bey’s swagger, Lizzo commands you to respect her as she is, a self-made woman who has no time for your body-shaming. Lizzo is not too much, she is everything. Her odes to “self-partnering” like “Soulmate” (“They used to say to get a man you had to know how to look/They used to say to keep a man you had to know how to cook/But I’m solo in Soho, sippin’ Soju in Malibu/ It’s a me, myself kinda attitude”) alternate with songs reading unworthy men the riot act. “Cuz I Love You” could be titled “Cuz I Love Me,” a message she puts across in every performance, every glam shot, every pep talk about knowing your own worth. If it’s a pose, it’s a great and a joyous one, because it pulls her listeners into a place of celebration for the messy realness and the shining possibilities inside all of us.


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(The Rose family of “Schitt’s Creek”)

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Affluent jet-setting poseurs lose their fortune and are reduced to living in the hinterlands among their plaid-clad inferiors — that’s the premise of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek.” It’s a seam that “Green Acres” and “Newhart” mined well (except that the urban sophisticates of those shows willingly relocated to small town USA in search of “real” folk). What “Schitt’s Creek” brings to the genre is a big-hearted view of humanity at a time when political tribes are actively avoiding each other. On “Schitt’s Creek,” the spoiled Rose family — video-store magnate Johnny Rose, his soap opera actress wife Moira and their pampered adult children Alexis and David — gradually develop humility and empathy as they discover their true selves.

Created by comedic treasure Eugene Levy (who plays Johnny) and his son Dan Levy (who plays David and is also a writer and producer on the show), “Schitt’s Creek” began life on Canada’s CBC and on the mid-tier cable network Pop in the U.S. It broke big when Netflix picked up existing seasons. I was slow to take notice, but once I did, I blasted through it with increasing astonishment and delight. It was my antidote to Twitter this year, and I wish I had had the will power to morsel out the 2019 season when it hit Netflix in October. But I didn’t, and now I have to wait for its sixth (and final season) to hit next year. That’s OK, it gives me more time to re-watch season five, which culminates in an amateur theater production of “Cabaret” for reasons unknown (but it totally works).

“Schitt’s Creek” is often burstingly funny. That magnificent, elegant clown, Catherine O’Hara has the role of a lifetime here and she slays it; her Moira is a bewigged, bedazzled fish out of water, clad in black-and-white haute couture and accentuating her lines in a bewildering speech pattern somewhere between pretentious thespian and Jiminy Glick. As for her longtime comedy partner Eugene Levy, I could write a thesis on his expressive eyebrows through the years, from “SCTV” to “Best in Show” to “Schitt’s Creek,” but for now, I’ll just say that his Johnny is a master class in comedic reacting as the optimist amid his family’s chaos.

What makes “Schitt’s Creek” perfect escapist viewing is it’s relentlessly positive depiction of people’s capacity for change; the longer the Roses stay in Schitt’s Creek — they bought the town as a joke when they were wealthy, and it’s their only remaining asset — the closer they become as a family. And as we get to know them and their neighbors, we’re constantly being surprised by every character’s slowly revealed strengths, kinks and aspirations, the depth of their emotional lives.

If this sounds treacly, it’s not. Every grandly sarcastic line from the mouth of bitchy fashionista David lands as invigoratingly as a cold dip after a hot sauna. And as Alexis, Annie Murphy has created an entire language out of variations on the exclamation, “Eww!” The most singular and wondrous thing about “Schitt’s Creek,” though, is its treatment of David’s queerness (Dan Levy is himself gay). Take the following exchange between Johnny and the town’s mayor, Roland Schitt (Chris Elliot). Roland is a passive-aggressive weirdo, but in keeping with the show’s theme that you should never assume you know what’s going on with people, he completely gets it:

Johnny: My son is pansexual.
Roland: Uh huh. I’ve heard of that. That’s, uh, that cookware fetish.
Johnny: No. No, no. He loves everyone. Men, women, women who become men, men who become women. I’m his father and I always wanted his life to be easy. But just… pick one gender and maybe everything would have been less confusing?
Roland: Well, you know, Johnny, when it comes to the heart, we can’t tell our kids who to love.

Near the end of season five, there’s a lovely episode where David’s adorably unflappable boyfriend Patrick (Noah Reid) comes out to his visiting parents. The parents are visibly uncomfortable and you’re waiting for the worst, but it turns out that they’re happy for him, just melancholy that Patrick kept his true self from them for so long. By design, there is no homophobia on “Schitt’s Creek.” This is Eugene and Dan Levy’s world, and we should all be so lucky to live in it.

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MORE SPOILERS!

FX’s “Pose,” the Ryan Murphy co-created drama series about ball culture and trans and gay life in New York City of the ’80s, set itself a daunting goal for its second season: Tell the story of how AIDS ravaged a generation of gay and trans people while President Ronald Reagan took no action. How do you document the terror, the demonization, the loss upon loss of those years without driving TV and streaming audiences away? Murphy, co-creator Steven Canale and writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J did it by alternating the focus from the personal to the political, drawing parallels to the criminal indifference shown toward the lives (and deaths) of LGBT people by a Republican administration and its powerful religious allies, then and now.

Season two of “Pose” gave viewers a living history lesson of the plague years, from ACT UP die-ins to the terrors of living with the disease that (in those days) meant certain death. The show’s most beloved characters, House of Evangelista mother Blanca Evangelista (MJ Rodriguez) and drag ball emcee Pray Tell (Emmy winner Billy Porter), both developed full-blown AIDS during the course of the season, reacting with their usual resilience (Blanca) and anger (Pray). Yes, “Pose” was often difficult to watch this season without shedding tears. But, as Pray Tell is fond of saying, the older members of the community have to educate the youth. Here is a major TV series with a cast, producers and writers that is majority trans and gay (and majority black- and brown-skinned), exploring the fullness of LGBT lives at a time when the faction in power is doing everything it can to erase them from public life.

Some of the characters’ experiences were horrible: the murder of Candy Ferocity, an African American trans woman; the many characters’ backstories about being banished by homophobic and transphobic parents; Pray Tell’s bone-chilling AIDS-fever dream where he wanders through the hospital ward singing “The Man That Got Away.” But this was all necessary to make the essential point — “Pose” shows you what people will risk for the freedom to live an authentic life.

For all the heartache and sickness this season, “Pose” still gave us plenty of music, dance and ball-walking (a through-line astutely showed the attention Madonna’s “Vogue” brought to the ball community, and the debris after mainstream interest faded). And when the emotional highs came, they were soaring. Pray finally letting himself act on his attraction to a much younger dancer led to a long, skin-to-skin bedroom scene of pure ecstasy. And Rodriguez continues to infuse Blanca, the head and heart of her ball family, with poise, grit and an endless capacity for maternal love.

In an indelible scene from the season finale, Blanca turns up for the “Mother of the Year” ball competition still weak from AIDS-related pneumonia. From her wheelchair, she radiantly lip-synchs to Whitney Houston’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This land is our land too, the choice of music proclaims. Blanca’s House of Evangelista, her crowded table, her chosen family, is a vision of a welcoming, inclusive America that was just a dream in 1990. We’ve come so far in 30 years, the writers seem to be telling us, even as they invite us to consider the forces that threaten to drag us backwards to the time of outcasts and plagues.

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Coming in Part Two: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Prince

From the Vault: Morris Day and Prime-Time

Hey, who remembers that Prince’s Court Jester, Morris Day, once starred in his own NBC sitcom pilot? I didn’t, and I was one of the few TV critics who reviewed it when it ran as summer filler in 1988. Here’s a nugget from my clippings archive, currently under construction. Many artifacts to come. (Stretch photo to enlarge.)

From the vault: Bruce Springsteen on video

Is it me baby, or just a brilliant disguise?

With Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” movie opening in theaters this weekend (I will see it if the Bay Area power outages permit), it got me thinking about a now-ancient VHS video anthology he released in 1989, comprising his MTV-age videos and clips from live performances at the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit and at Neil Young’s Bridge School benefit in 1986. In this anthology, you can see Springsteen’s early evolution as a performer in front of the camera and as a visual artist behind it. There’s a whole world of changes between his awkward dance steps on “Dancing in the Dark” and the stunning emotional nakedness of “Brilliant Disguise.” Here’s my review from the San Francisco Examiner in 1989. Expand image to read.

The tide is high

I need a better phone. ©Joyce Millman

Blurry, sorry! ©Joyce Millman

It seemed only fitting to spend the night after my “officially eligible for the senior discount” birthday seeing a double bill of Blondie and Elvis Costello at a summer shed venue in the outermost suburbs of the East Bay. After a 2 1/2 hour crawl to the Concord Pavilion through perpetual Bay Area traffic, the consort and I had just enough time to wolf down our picnic dinner in the parking lot, while watching our peers being golf-carted up the mountain from a more distant lot. How can these senior folk be our age cohort? I mean, just look at us! We could pass for … uh … never mind.

It takes more energy to get out to a show these days, but for Elvis, the consort and I will go anywhere (this trek proves it). Costello’s cancer scare a couple of years ago only hardened our determination — he plays anywhere near SF, we’re there. My first Elvis show was in 1979 — I’m so old, I reviewed it for my college newspaper. I’ve seen him so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. By contrast, I last saw Blondie right before the Parallel Lines album hit big, in a small Boston club called the Paradise. She was the diamond-cut visage of New Wave, with a voice like a candy cloud. Musically, Blondie laid the blueprint for the blend of arty pop-punk and Eurodisco that would be followed by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand and Lady Gaga.

I mention all of this because attending an Elvis-Blondie concert one day after turning 62 was so on-brand, if you know me, as to be comical. The only thing more perfect could have been a Springsteen show, but, sadly, Bruce would not oblige.

I have no illusions. I’m not a kid anymore. I listen to new artists, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to go stand in a field at some summer festival to see them play live. So pretty much the only concerts I go to these days are ones where I have a seat to fall into when I can’t dance any more. Usually, that means “legacy acts.” Hence the trek to this outdoor venue on top of a sun-bleached mountain in the land of gated subdivisions. Long story short … I’m glad I did. This was no ’80’s nostalgia package. This was a doubleheader of titans.

Elvis Costello was last in the Bay Area just this past December for a long and varied show at the Masonic that revolved around the swell orchestral pop of his latest album Look Now. The co-headlining summer tour with Blondie had each act playing for under two hours. It’s asking a lot of Costello to edit his set down for curfew — with a catalog as deep as his, how do you choose?

The setlist favored the greatest hits  (“Radio Radio,” “Alison,” “Pump It Up”) but also worked in a couple of slow-burning wild cards not played before on this tour, “Party Girl,” from Armed Forces, and “Come the Meantimes,” from his collaboration with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. The latter hit a blues-funk groove that you wished could have gone on all night. Costello was in strong voice (especially at the piano for a soaring ballad “A Face in the Crowd,” as yet unrecorded,  from his upcoming Broadway musical adaptation of the movie of the same name) and even stronger guitar form  — his crackling solo injected the oft-performed “Watching the Detectives” with new life.

The Attractions — pianist Steve Naive, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher –were, as always, impeccable and limber. Backing vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee add a crucial element to live performances of Costello’s songs of love and revenge — the woman’s presence. Like Steely Dan’s backing vocalists, they serve as Greek chorus, counterpoint and a breath of youth. The interplay between Costello and his vocalists was at its most fun on the Supremes-inspired “Unwanted Number,” in a long riff where Costello shouted out titles with numbers in them (from “One is the loneliest number” to “Ninety-nine and a half won’t do”).

Costello was cheerful and chatty, even up against a curfew. He performed an impersonation of Elvis Presley covering Blondie songs (well-mannered Presley would never have sung the “pain in the ass” line from “Heart of Glass,” Costello assures us), and tossed off some dark topical humor in a remark about an earlier tour stop in Gettysburg, and wanting to see the site of the last Civil War before the next one breaks out. The by-now standard, cathartic finale “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with a stunning new video backdrop display of Costello’s artwork flashing “Thou Shalt Not Kill”) came much too soon and we were filing out to the wonderfully wicked selection of the 1956 British kids’ tune “Nellie the Elephant,” with its chorus of “Trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump.” I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed in the necessarily shortened set; as Elvis’s shows go, it was a mere snack. But it tasted so good.

Blondie was the opener on this tour, and the audience at Concord seemed to tilt more toward their fans than Elvis’s. Debbie Harry (whose memoir Face It will be published in October) is 74, and her voice is lower than it used to be and showing signs of end-of-tour overuse (she sipped tea throughout, and talk-sung some of the lyrics). But goddess bless her, she is an inspiration to all of us women of a certain vintage who are trying to figure out what “act your age” means. She shows us that it means whatever the hell you want it to mean.

Harry doesn’t give an inch. She took the stage clad in the following: a silver-threaded short-sleeve turtleneck sweater; a black, sparkly high-low-hemmed wrap skirt tied over black leggings; a chunky black belt (possibly containing a fanny pack, it was hard to see from where I was sitting); a black helmet-type hat like those worn by equestrians or possibly London cops; oversized sunglasses; and a billowy silver Mylar-looking anorak. Before the encores, she disappeared from the stage and re-emerged wearing a black and silver ruffled cocoon that was probably designed by Rei Kawakubo for all I know. Her platinum blond signature coif was perfect. She pranced and danced and clowned, all with a big smile on her face. The love traveled both ways.

A white-haired Chris Stein sat to her left throughout the show, wearing dark shades. Clem Burke, who, along with the Attractions’ Pete Thomas is one of the greatest drummers to ever drum, was set up behind Plexiglass baffling. Burke is the only other original member of Blondie in the band besides Harry and Stein, and he looked exactly how you would expect Clem Burke to look. Has he been preserved in amber? (The three original members are joined by bassist Leigh Foxx, lead guitarist Tommy Kessler and keyboardist Matt Katz-Boher.)

Blondie’s set was one glorious hit after another (“Call Me,” “Hanging on the Telephone,” “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture”), with a deep cut or two (“Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines and “Atomic” from Eat to the Beat were a pleasant surprise).  And the band played two absolute genius covers, the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus hit of the summer “Old Town Road” and the James Bond theme song “From Russia with Love.” Covering “Old Town Road,” a marriage of rap and country, was a reminder that Blondie’s “Rapture” served a similar purpose of taking the sound of one genre and culture into untested territory. “Rapture” was the first (and, for years, only) hip-hop song to be played on MTV. As for “From Russia with Love,” Harry purred it, deadpan, in front of that notorious prank Presidential seal (a Photoshop with the two-headed Russian eagle holding golf clubs), to whoops of solidarity from the crowd.

The highlight for me was Blondie’s reggae cover “The Tide Is High,” which Harry prefaced with a remark about the tide being high for some of us. At the time I took that to be a reference to the climate crisis (Harry is a longtime environmental activist). But this morning, I remembered her shout to the audience at the song’s end, “I’m holding on. I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that. Are you?” Tide and time. Sea levels and the number of candles on the cake, both rising. Fight on, Debbie, you eccentric, irreplaceable diamond.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2019

Aretha forever

©Atlantic Records

Let’s not speak of Aretha Franklin in the past tense. Let’s speak of her in eternals. The sun and the rain, the earth and the sky, love and faith, sorrow and perseverance. Aretha embodies all of those things and gives them voice, a rich, supple voice flowing with humanity. It’s among the two or three greatest voices popular music has ever known.

Aretha’s music is godly, lusty, turbulent, ecstatic, glistening. She spans musical styles and decades, while always remaining Aretha. She is the Queen of Soul, the reverend’s daughter, the woman who shows other women how to demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T, whose voice gave voice to torrential grief at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and soaring joy at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She brought Obama to tears when she sang ‘A Natural Woman’ to its co-writer, Carole King, when the latter received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015.  Of that performance, Obama told The New Yorker, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of  ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”

Aretha is the soul of black America, she is the soul of America, period. She is soul music, and the music of the soul. Aretha, simply, is. And will always be.

***

Aretha is …

“Respect”.  From her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is the song that changed everything. Aretha didn’t write it (Otis Redding did), but she wholly subverts it. A man reminding his lover, “I’m about to give you all my money … And all I’m asking, a little respect when I come home” is one thing. A woman singing the same lines, demanding “my propers” when she comes home from work, creates a thrilling new power shift. In the ‘60’s, Aretha’s “Respect” was adopted as an anthem of both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements — intersectional feminism before the concept had a name. Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma came up with the spelled-out repetition of the title and the “sock it to me” backing vocals. Listening to it now, more than fifty years later, it sounds more eruptive, uncompromising and triumphant than ever.

Amazing Grace. Aretha grew up a reverend’s daughter from Detroit (or “De-twah,” as she pronounced it, like the French), singing in her father’s church. She returned to her roots with this double gospel album recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in 1972. Amazing Grace was the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career. I wrote this about the album in 2012: “This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.”

 

“Nessun dorma”, Grammy Awards 1998. She stepped in for an ailing Pavarotti to sing the aria from Turandot with only minutes to prepare, singing it in the key that had been arranged for him. (This video keeps getting removed from You Tube, so act quickly.)

Young, Gifted and Black. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a cohort of Dr. King; he also recorded a sermon entitled “The Meaning of Black Power.” And Aretha used her profile to further black pride and culture. A small report in a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine details how Aretha “stands ready” to pay Black Panther Angela Davis’s bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” The piece quotes Aretha as saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. … I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” (When the bond was set, Aretha was on an overseas tour and communications glitches prevented the transfer of the money.)

The chugging funk of “Rock Steady” and the misty, swirling R&B of “Day Dreaming” are two of my favorite Aretha-written songs. Both are from her Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972, the same period as Amazing Grace. Aretha in the early ’70s, with her natural hair and African dress, was a powerful contrast to the conservatively groomed young woman of her early career. The video below, a galloping performance of “Rock Steady,” comes from a 1971 episode of The Flip Wilson Show, and I’m including it because it validates a hazy memory from my youth. I remember watching Aretha on a variety show, maybe this one, with my mother, who offered a  stony dismissal of Aretha’s “crazy” hair and African garb. Watching Aretha on TV with my parents during this period was like sitting in a sauna of heated disapproval. Fast forward to President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, for which Aretha donned the quintessential church hat, festooned with a magnificent, oversized bow, to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and instantly became the butt of white comedians’ jokes. Oh, and my mother couldn’t deal with that hat, at all.

The Interpreter. Aretha stands with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest interpreters of pop songs of the 20th Century. With her unerring ear for arrangement and melody, her precise knowledge of when to caress a word, when to draw out a syllable, how long to hold a beat or a cry, and when to just let her emotions go, everything she sang became an Aretha Franklin Song. She conveys a deep connection to the lyrics of some of the most surprising choices. When Aretha sings it, the God-Is-Dead high-mindedness of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” becomes a gospel sermon about faith as the antidote to loneliness in disconnected times. Her ecstatic “I Say a Little Prayer” is the definitive version, all exuberant, full-hearted passion; Dionne Warwick’s (lovely) original of the Bacharach-David classic sounds muted and distant in comparison. Aretha pours blood and soul into Simon and Garfunkel’s tepidly angelic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and connects to Elton John’s “Border Song”  with every atom of her being.

Sisterhood. If you’re going to talk about the seam of female strength and solidarity that runs through Aretha’s greatest hits, you have to talk about her relationship to her backup singers on those records. This is what I wrote in a piece called “In Praise of Backup Singers”:

The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ”  “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.

The Queen of Soul. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors video encapsulates better than any of my words what a profound and immutable part of popular music, of America’s collective soul, Aretha Franklin will always remain. Amen.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2018

Year-End Clearance! Everything Must Go!

rejected

Rather than dwell on the black hole of despair that was 2017, I’ve decided to end the year with some slightly irregular, re-gifted, hit-or-miss laughs. Yes, it’s my first ever year-end comedy clearance sale! Think of it as the Happy Honda Days of Rejected Humor Submissions. Hum “Holiday Road” as you read, if that helps! For the next three days, this blog will feature humor pieces that never should have seen the light of publication, according to the editors who were not as amused by them as I was. Surely you, my readers, can find some room in your hearts for the misfit toys, the day-old fruitcakes, the office grab-bag Yankee Candles, that comprised more than half of my humor writing output this magical year!

First up, we have a rejected letter to Steve Bannon, from early in his reign as the “presidential” “brain.”

*****

Dear President Bannon,

Many years ago, you made a fortuitous investment in a struggling television show called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.” As a result, you earned a handy sum in rerun residuals. Due to an accident of time and place (I lived in the same apartment building), I was a reluctant player in that sorry glorification of Jerry Seinfeld‘s little comedy act. I write to you today to offer my support as a brother-in-arms against the greatest threat our Republic has ever known: Funny Jews.

Oh, they think they’re so clever, quipping and wisecracking as if they, not Aleksandr Dugin, invented comedy! It pains me, Herr Bannon, to see them trying to break you now with their feeble quips and Internet memes about your (I paraphrase) big-boned physique and devilish nature. For I too have been the target of like barbs from one Jewish “funnyman” in particular. Hello, Jerry. 

For nine years, my dietary habits (which are perfectly in moderation — just ask my good friend the Soup Nazi), the cleanliness of my apartment and my work ethic were reduced to mere punchlines, while Seinfeld and his cohort reaped media acclaim. Well, the joke is on them, thanks to your brilliant foresight investing in this incomprehensibly popular series. Lo, these many years later, what an irritant you must be to the liberal coastal elites who find Seinfeld’s inane observations about airplane peanuts so irresistible! What a moral quandary they now face when they tune into their precious reruns. Their nightly escape from reality only adds another penny to your coffers. Bwa-ha-ha! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

President Bannon, let me be frank. You and I are kindred spirits. I too am a man who knows how to nurse a grudge and who savors the piquant nectar of revenge against a sworn enemy.  For you, it’s Jews, and women, and liberals, and African Americans, and gays, and Muslims, and Mexicans, and small refugee children with life-threatening heart conditions. For me, it’s … Jerry. Allow me to propose an allegiance.

I have many skills that could be useful in your crusade to bring about a new world order. I have been a loyal employee of the U.S. Postal Service for well over 30 years. I know how to tamper with the mails and get away scot-free. I follow orders. I am stealthy, nimble and unburdened by conscience. I will rat out anyone, anytime, anyplace, and I’ll do it with a smile on my face.

To wit: Jerry has been consorting with a Pakistani restaurateur, one “Babu Bhatt.” A cursory interception of Mr. Bhatt’s mail reveals that he is an illegal. Do with this information what you will, My Leader. There’s plenty more where that came from. I stand ready to serve you — for a not unreasonable price. Think of what you could accomplish with a sympathetic Postmaster General by your side! 

Yours in solidarity,

Newman

129 W. 81st St., Apt. 5F

New York, NY 10024

uMCZFBr

(Coming tomorrow: Another reject wrapped up in a big red bow!)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Music therapy on the anniversary of awfulness: The Rails’ “Other People”

Has it only been a year? It feels like a century. There’s a Reductress satire headlined, “Why I’m Preparing for the Anniversary of Trump’s Victory by Rolling Myself Up in a Rug and Dying in There.” Oh, such a tempting option! But the tiny flicker of optimism that hasn’t yet been beaten down tells me that a better way to mark this obscene milestone is by denying our doll-handed pretender the satisfaction of our despair. So I’m going to spend the day practicing defiance through positive action, and humbly suggest that you do the same. Volunteer in your community. Join a voter registration drive. Do a small kindness. Walk in a park. Talk to people. Take a break from Twitter. Listen to music.

I’ll make that last suggestion even more specific. Listen to “Other People,” the exquisitely angry and spot-on second album by the Rails. The married British folk duo (Kami Thompson and James Walbourne) recorded this record in Nashville, and it perfectly captures the mood of the past year, all upheaval and bad juju, shattered unity and evil bastards smirking their way to power. “Troubled times and devil bones/ There’s a fork in the road,” Thompson sings in the first and last line of the album’s final track. This is a record haunted by Trump and Brexit; hearing it for the first time was like finding an ally and a friend.

The record opens with “The Cally,” Walbourne’s harmonium-driven slow march that conjures the working-class neighborhood of Caledonia Road in the ’60s, when “them big old towers, they shot up fast and left us looking skyward.” Later, on the track “Brick and Mortar,” we see that march of progress continuing throughout London in present-day, and what a betrayal of the working-class it all turned out to be.

With ferocious fuzzed-out guitar and a snapping snare drum beat halfway between a New Orleans funeral procession and a Celtic march, “Brick and Mortar” sneers at deep-pocketed “sharks and lions” gobbling up neighborhoods whole, driving out working people, artists and the poor in favor of luxury flats and bullet trains to the suburbs: “And every piece of track is another stab in the back/ They’re tearing up old London’s brick and mortar.” (The song is specific to London, but it feels like San Francisco to me.) The themes of displacement and a broken country in disarray are there again on Kami’s heartbreaking “Leaving the Land” and that ominous finale, “Mansion of Happiness,” in which one of those forks in the road ends up pointing towards an England of  “walking dead,” too suckered in by their screens to see their country stolen out from under their noses.

The record is so thematically cohesive that even the songs that deal with relationships in turmoil (“Late Surrender,” “Drowned in Blue”) or lost souls struggling with their own destructive behavior (“Dark Times,” “Hanging On,” “Shame”) work as metaphors for the bigger picture of things falling apart.

I don’t want to give the impression that this record is a downer. Like Thompson’s Brit-folk royalty parents, Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson and brother Teddy, The Rails are skilled at enrobing the bleakest lyrics in the most rousing Celtic/Americana snap and twang.  Most of all, while “Other People” is not exactly a cheery record, it might give you some comfort to hear your own rage and sadness mirrored in Thompson and Walbourne’s voices.

If you’re nearly tapped out of hope that justice and good will prevail, listen to the title track, “Other People”; it’s a searing denouncement of the selfishness, cruelty and tribalism encouraged by the Brexit “Leavers” and Trumpism’s “I’m the only one that matters” credo. This song is exactly the affirmation of the power of community we need right now.

Thompson has a dark diamond of a voice dipped in sorrow and shining with intimacy and kinship.  Singing the unsparing, astringent lyrics of  “Other People,”  she does something similar to what Jarvis Cocker did on Pulp’s “Common People,” but in a much sweeter way. She makes you feel like you’re not alone in this upside-down world. She makes you believe that we will eviscerate these assholes together.

“Crazy people, money grabbers, old religion and new regimes/Backstabbers, heartbreakers, psychopaths with evil schemes,” goes the first verse of “Other People,” and as a summation of Trump and Farage and their armies of darkness, you can’t ask for much better than that. Then Walbourne comes in on the deceptively simple chorus, which has a melody that carries a hint of a gospel sway: “There are other people in this world, other people in this world, not just you.”

The first time through the chorus, The Rails are simply confirming the reality that a segment of our fellow humans is willfully devoid of empathy or moral compass. On the second verse, Thompson directly addresses the money grabbers, psychopaths, et al.: “Take the money, steal the candy, rob the blind and kick the dog/Build your palace on a graveyard/ Make believe you’ve done nothing wrong.” After that litany of evil, when Thompson and Walbourne harmonize on the chorus, they sound how many of us feel a lot of the time — like we’re up against an overwhelming force.

But then, something almost miraculous happens. On the last verse, Thompson and Walbourne turn away from the bad guys to sing to the rest of us: “Heard a sad voice, heard it cry/Take me back to better times/ This cold world feels unfamiliar/We’re all strangers in our own time.” And in this context, the chorus is transformed into a message of solidarity and strength, a reminder that we are not alone, that “there are other people in this world” who share our fears and defiance, and in this battle, it’s “not just you.” It’s a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall moment, and it could have been corny, but it isn’t; instead, it’s a brave and heartening anthem for these dark times.

(Other People by The Rails was released in the US June 29, 2018 on ThirtyTigers. It debuted in the UK last fall on Psychonaut Sounds, iTunes, Amazon, and Pledge Music, UK)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

Never gonna give you up

IMG_1168
My precious. (Photo by Joyce Millman, 2017)
 

Last week, Apple announced the death of the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle, its last two stand-alone MP3 players. Most people might have been surprised to learn that those two lower-end iPod models had been, in fact, still alive in 2017. As music players, they were eclipsed years ago by the iPhone, and, to a lesser-degree, the iPod Touch (basically, the phone without the calling capability). For younger people, the iPod is as attractive as a gramophone.

The news didn’t surprise me. As the owner of a 2008 4th generation iPod Nano, which I still use every day, I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a long time now. Apple all but abandoned iPod fans like myself when it shifted its focus to the iPhone. I see the business logic to it: Unlike the iPhone, the iPod wasn’t a robust revenue stream. You bought an iPod, you loaded your music onto it, The End. But Apple’s announcement still makes me angry.

Look, I know that, as an old lady who doesn’t see the point of replacing a perfectly good working gadget every five seconds with a shinier iteration of the same, I am not Apple’s target consumer. I can live with that. Tech moves fast, and I made my choice to not move with it.

But it pisses me off that the most perfect portable music delivery system I’ve ever known is now — like a string of forerunners — over. Ever since I was a kid, I carried my music with me, consuming it in my head, on a succession of ’60s transistor radios and ’70s boomboxes, followed by an ’80s Walkman and a ’90s Discman. Just typing the names of those devices conjures flashes of memory. Transistor: On the front porch, in the summer, 10-years-old, AM Top 40 countdown. Boombox: Road trip to Asbury Park, Springsteen cassettes blasting out the windows. Walkman: On the bus, on my way to work, earphones in, listening to mix tapes. Discman: Man, I really disliked the Discman. Yes, CD’s sounded better and were more convenient to search than cassettes. But, unlike the Walkman, it was practically impossible to be mobile while using one. The discs skipped and I hated the stupid foam fanny pack-type belt holder accessory. I still have a Discman in the junk drawer. What a ridiculous invention.

But my first iPod … sweet liberation! Light, palm-sized, skip-proof, no physical media to carry, yet you could take your entire music collection with you — it was the best of all worlds. I had a 2004 1st generation iPod Mini, green, with the tiny screen and the big click wheel, and I used that baby everywhere. I hooked it onto my waistband, hit “shuffle” and listened to my own freeform radio station when I was cooking dinner (still my favorite use for the iPod). Holding the Mini now, it seems like it weighs a ton, but compared to the Walkman and Discman, it was light as a feather.

I stuck with that Mini until it stopped holding a charge, and moved onto the model that had replaced it, the Nano. Mine was a 2008 16 GB 4th generation, blue, with color display. It was so much lighter and smaller, yet it had a bigger screen and video playback capability, a pleasing, slightly curved, rectangular body, and, of course, a click wheel. I loved the feel of her in my hand, and I’ve had her for nine years, but she needs more charging all the time. I fear the end is near. Apple stopped making MP3 players with click wheels in 2014, switching everything to touchscreen technology. If mine can’t be fixed, I’ll have to hunt down a 4th or 5th generation Nano, or any MP3 with a click wheel, on eBay or someplace.

What is it about the click wheel? It’s simple. You can control it blind, without having to look at it and touch a screen. Use it once and you know instinctively where to place your thumb on the wheel to skip and pause play, how much pressure to apply in circular motion to control volume. With the click wheel, it just takes a second to put down the chopping knife, touch the “skip” or “volume” place on the wheel without taking your eyes off what you’ve got sautéing on the stove, and go back to work. Without the click wheel, it’s impossible to do that. And thanks to that click wheel, the iPod kept me calm through more dental and medical procedures than I care to remember;  I’d hold it in my hand, thumb on the click wheel and turn up the volume to drown out the medical machinery and take my mind off the pain.

When I travel, I carry both my iPod and my iPhone. I could just accept defeat and stream music on my phone, but … no click wheel. And the thing is, more than half of the music on my iPod is my music, that I own, that I loved enough to buy on physical media and then wanted to carry around with me in my pocket, so I transferred it into my iTunes library. Yes! I still do this! I sit there at my laptop feeding CD’s into the slot and picking and choosing tracks to add to my library. And, yes! I own an old MacBook Pro that I won’t replace because it was the last model with an onboard CD drive. Are you seeing a pattern here? (I also refuse to update to the latest version of iTunes, because it sucks, and has sucked for years, and I have the last non-sucky version. As long as it still works, it’s staying.)

I’m fussy and I make no apologies for that. At the same time, I accept that the world will not conform to my fussiness. Which is a good thing, because Apple couldn’t care less about me and my quirks. But it’s not my fault that once upon a time, Apple designed a product that so impeccably fit my needs, I saw no need to replace it. I’ve loved its iPods long and well, and in return, Apple sees us both as obsolete.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017

 

 

We’re all Buffy now

I’m sorry I haven’t written here in months. I’ve been having trouble focussing on the things that used to be so important to me. Music, TV, arguing about the fine points thereof … that was life before. Now, I spend more time glued to Resistance Twitter and poring over the Washington Post and New York Times for glimmers of hope that our national nightmare will end in something other than an ignorant, grifting fascist tweeting us into nuclear war.

But I was roused from my tunnel-vision by the realization that there is a meaningful anniversary to mark this week. Twenty years ago, on March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on The WB. At the time, I was the TV critic for Salon, and writing about BtVS and its darkly satisfying vampire/detective-noir spinoff Angel was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Both shows still rank in my Top 10 of the best TV dramas ever.

Throughout its six-year run, BtVS remained a cult hit on the WB and (for the final two years) UPN, marginal broadcast networks that didn’t even reach every major market; the show never cracked the top tier of the Nielsen ratings, never earned any major Emmy nominations (star Sarah Michelle Gellar did pick up one Golden Globe nomination). Rich in mythology, seeded with zingy pop culture references and crackling humor, the then-singular tone of BtVS would have been perfect for Netflix or Amazon, but those cachet-dripping alt-TV platforms had yet to be invented. The influence of BtVS, though, reverberated through the past two decades in shows about uncommon young women (and their friends) fighting seemingly unbeatable evils, from Veronica Mars to Orphan Black to Supergirl to The Good Place. 

The tale of Buffy Summers was a feminist hero’s journey; the snarky California teen grappled with her responsibilities as the once-in-a-generation Chosen girl tasked with protecting the world from the supernatural evil known in the show’s shorthand as “The Big Bad.” Created by Joss Whedon, BtVS mashed together a slew of genres — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, John Hughes teen angst, Anne Rice vampire hotness — into something thrillingly new.

There were moments of genuine terror, of both the scary-monster variety (all these years later, the free-floating, skeletal “Gentlemen” still give me the creeps) and the quiet, personal kind (the premature death of Buffy’s mom). The empowerment of women, their strength, courage and sexual agency, was a central theme of the series. Not that the show put Buffy on a pedestal. She was Chosen, but she was also a poignantly human young woman. She struggled with being a savior;  she sometimes made bad choices that hurt the people she loved, and herself. She was realistically imperfect, and as the series went on, we watched her come to terms with her imperfections and her life (and death).

One of Buffy’s flaws was that she took too much on her shoulders, shutting out the loyal members of her “Scooby Gang.” The Scoobies each had a role to play in saving the world from the demons that issued forth from the Hellmouth beneath Sunnydale, Buffy’s suburban hometown. This misfit gang was named for the crew in Scooby-Doo, which itself borrowed from Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars. Buffy’s Scoobies included a Jewish-computer-geek- lesbian-witch (the incomparable Willow Rosenberg, played by Alyson Hannigan), a proper British middle-aged librarian (Rupert Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head), a mean girl (Cordelia Chase, played by Charisma Carpenter), a loyal platonic guy friend (Xander Harris, played by Nicholas Brendon), and a platinum-haired punk vampire (Spike, played by James Marsters) with whom Buffy indulged in a masochistic affair that even now retains its power to polarize fans.

Despite their differences, the Scoobies were a true community; in fact, their power derived from the linked diversity of its members. Willow’s computer skills early in the show and her witchcraft later in the series, Giles’ knowledge of occult arcana, Xander’s selfless dedication — these were just a few of the weapons in Buffy’s arsenal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about BtVS, and Angel since the election. How did this happen to us? How could a cabal of the worst and the ugliest turn our democracy upside down so quickly?  Russia? The KKK? Nazis? It’s as if the Hellmouth opened and set all our existential foes running wild at once.

But if we learned one thing from BtVS and Angel it’s this: We know what a diverse group of people working together for the common good can accomplish.

So much of BtVS and Angel seems astonishingly familiar now. Mike Pence, fronting  homophobic and anti-woman politics with an impossibly tidy veneer of churchgoing blandness, could be a doppelgänger for the creepily paternalistic, gosh-golly Mayor Richard Wilkins of Sunnydale, who lurked through early seasons of BtVS. The Mayor was the Big Bad of season three, secretly fattening up on dark power until he shed his human form and revealed himself as a giant snake bent on destruction. Mr. Vice President, we see you.

Creepy paternalism and rapey and misogynistic men made for a recurring theme throughout the run of BtVS. The Trio, the Big Bad of season six, were three computer game nerds who couldn’t get laid; they developed the magical equivalent of a date rape drug and built robot women (including a robot Buffy) to abuse and debase. (Sound familiar?) Later, in the final season, an army of young women — the entire line of Slayer succession through time — banded together to help Buffy fight Caleb, a misogynistic preacher who railed against “dirty girls” and the primal evil of woman. The preacher was clearly meant as a personification of the religious right’s contempt for women’s rights — contempt that has become bedrock Republican policy today.

Angel, which ran for five seasons on The WB, was even more persistent in weaving social and political commentary into its storylines. One of the most indelible of the show’s story arcs transported the vampire-with-a-soul and his own Scooby Gang into the home dimension of pal  Lorne, a gay, disco-singing demon. In this brutally Medieval shithole, women were regarded as “cows” and there was no music; being able to hear music in his head made Lorne so different, (read, “gay”) as a child, that he’d had to flee this place for his life.  This three-episode arc from season two has only grown more biting with time. And the ending of the last episode of Angel still gives me chills, a tiny band of comrades steeling themselves against dire odds, as every beast and monster ever known is unleashed on Los Angeles. “Personally, I kinda wanna slay the dragon,” says the battered Angel with a grin. “Let’s go to work.” Freeze-frame.

The fact that BtVS and Angel are so on-the-nose in our current political reality is not an accident. As a country, we’ve been locked in the same cultural war — women’s rights, LGBT equality, racial equality on one side, and fear and meanness hiding behind a warped version of evangelical Christianity on the other — for the past two decades. Back then, BtVS and Angel showed us the monsters that lurked beneath the surface of our country. The monsters all out in the open now.

But, on the upside, isn’t it easier to slay the dragon you can see than the one you can’t? Which is why, on this anniversary of the birth of the Buffyverse,  I’m taking solace in the organic Resistance that arose on November 9 and continues every day against xenophobia, misogyny, racism, transphobia and, yes, Nazis. The Resistance is the Scooby Gang writ large. We may be snowflakes who watch too much TV, but we know how this story goes. We know the sacrifices and the setbacks. We also know that if we stick together, we will win.

Buffy once said, “I’m the thing the monsters have nightmares about.” The Big Bad that slimed its way into the White House when we were looking the other way? It’s more afraid of us than we are of it.

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Here are a couple of my favorite BtVS pieces from the vault:

The Death of Buffy’s Mom (Salon, Mar. 12, 2001)

Getting Buffy’s Last Rites Right (New York Times, Apr. 20, 2003)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2017