Friday, February 6, 2009

"Questions" by Buffalo Springfield

This is a song from Buffalo Springfield's neglected third album. Like, it's intentionally neglected, even by the band members themselves. When Neil put together that near-definitive Buffalo Springfield box set a few years ago - four discs for a band that only ever released three albums - he included their first two albums in their entirety (a lot of the songs twice), but somehow couldn't find room for all of the third record. Strange. It's true that Last Time Around doesn't sound like the work of a band, but of a bunch of guys who can't wait to go solo. But their second album sounds like that, too, and everybody loves it.

If you're a CSN fan you may recognize "Questions" as the second part of "Carry On." This is a fuller exploration of those melodic ideas. In fact it's an exemplary folk rock record. An army of guitars. A piquant mixture of acoustic goodness and electronic evil. Nice easygoing rhythm. A catchy tune with a real emotional hook. The lyrics and vocals are pure '60s, Steve Stills at his soulfullest.

It would do any classic rock radio station proud. You never hear it, though.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bob Dylan Chronicles: June to November 1961

For an explanation of this project and the previous volume, click the "bob dylan" tag below or to the right.

“Acne.” Live, July 29, Riverside Church, New York, New York. Released in 2000 on The Ballad Of Ramblin’ Jack OST. The latter half of 1961 saw Dylan progressing rapidly in his skill and confidence as a folk singer, and luckily it also sees a slight uptick in the number of high-quality tapes we have of him. This represents the latter, if not the former. It’s a goof of a song, written by fellow folk revivalist Eric von Schmidt, that Dylan performed at a hootenanny broadcast live on the radio. Here he’s singing a duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a fellow Jewish-masquerading-as-cowboy Woody Guthrie wannabe and a big influence on the early Dylan. The performance is amusing, with Dylan trying his best to sound like a seasoned folkie making fun of greasy kid-stuff pop, when, as we learned last time, he was only a couple of years removed from it himself.

“Car, Car.” Live, September 6, 1961, the Gaslight, New York, New York. Here we hear Dylan on another duet, this time with Dave Van Ronk, another seminal early influence. (Van Ronk’s interviews in the Scorsese documentary in 2005 were a riot.) The song was written by Woody Guthrie, and the venue was a classic Greenwich Village folksinger coffeehouse. Another goof. One thing all the early witnesses agree on, but that we have precious little surviving evidence of, is how funny Dylan could be on stage. Chaplinesque, is the term that gets thrown around. You can't hear that here; in fact, the humor here sounds kind of forced. But he's trying.

“Sally Gal.” Live on the radio, October 29, 1961, WNYC Studios, New York, New York. This was recorded during a guest spot on folk DJ Oscar Brand’s show, when Dylan dropped by to promote his upcoming concert – as you can hear here. The song is more or less an original, and Dylan used it to open a lot of sets in this period of his career. An official version of it was only finally released in 2005, but this isn’t that take. The interview here is as intriguing as the song, as we get to hear Dylan tell some of the whoppers that had everybody in the Village that first year thinking he was some kind of real live American tumbleweed type, fresh from riding the blinds on a circus train or something. The point, now, is not that he was lying – which of course he was – but that he wanted so badly to be that kind of person, to be able to sing that kind of song with authority. It was authenticity he was after, and he’d get it even if he had to make it up as he went. That there paradox is early Dylan in a nutshell.

“1913 Massacre.” Live, November 4, 1961, Carnegie Chapter Hall, New York, New York. Now we visit that concert itself, Dylan’s first – i.e., his first appearance on a stage in front of a paying audience there expressly to see him, as opposed to in a coffee-house passing a hat. By all accounts it was sparsely attended, and we should point out that the Chapter Hall was a small annex to the main Carnegie Hall – Dylan was not playing Carnegie Hall his first year in NY. But still, it was an important gig. And we have several songs from it in excellent quality, including this brilliant performance of one of Woody’s most affecting songs.

“In The Pines.” Live, Nov. 4, 1961. Same concert, here with a Leadbelly tune that our younger listeners will know mainly from its appearance on Nirvana’s Unplugged album. One of the most exciting beginnings of any Dylan performance I know. He'd recycle it for a tune on his second album.

“Young But Daily Growing.” Live, November 4. Same concert. Here we find Dylan tackling an old English song, a Child ballad, if I’m not mistaken. And it inspires him to the finest vocal performance we have any evidence of to date. This is just a magnificent piece of singing – sensitive, evocative, and moving. Exhibit A (we’ll eventually fill out the alphabet) in my case that Yes, Dylan Can Sing. Not just wrestle a song into submission with the force of his will, which is what most people will allow him, but actually put it across with technical skill and sensitivity. Listen to the way the mood shifts as the song goes along; listen to the phrasing, the way he approaches each note.

“This Land Is Your Land.” Live, November 4. This is, of course, Woody’s signature song, given a suprisingly non-anthemic, not to say morose, reading here by Bob. Same concert. This was released in 2005 on the No Direction Home soundtrack, and it was particularly noteworthy because it had never circulated. We don’t know how many other tracks from this important concert Columbia is sitting on, or if they'll ever release it in its entirety. It certainly deserves it.

“Freight Train Blues.” November 20 or 22, 1961, Columbia Studios, New York, New York. Released on Bob Dylan, March 1962. By late 1961, Dylan had impressed enough people by performances like the ones we’ve just heard that he was given a record deal. And not just any record deal – he was signed to Columbia Records, a major among majors, by no less a luminary than John Hammond, a man instrumental in the careers of many of the blues and folk greats of generations past, including Bessie Smith and Big Bill Broonzy. In late November, Dylan went into Columbia’s studios and recorded his first album, plus a few outtakes, in the span of two sessions. This is a traditional number and typical of the exuberance of the sessions.

“He Was A Friend Of Mine.” This, like all the rest of the songs on this disc, was recorded at the sessions for that first album. This, however, was not released at the time, but in 1991 on The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3. This in spite of it being one of his earliest compositional triumphs – it’s a traditional, much rearranged by Bob, and Bob’s version became a folkie standard. And it’s a wonderful performance. Thus we’re initiated into one of the enduring mysteries of Dylan’s career: how some of his greatest studio performances could be left off the albums they were recorded for.

“Talkin’ New York.” Released on Bob Dylan. An original, this is a talking blues about Dylan’s early life in New York. Cute.
“In My Time Of Dyin’.” Released on Bob Dylan. One thing that impressed everybody about Dylan’s debut album was how much he threw himself into the blues on it, and how much of the blues there was. Somewhere there’s a story of an old black janitor at Columbia hearing Dylan sing at these sessions and nodding his head in appreciation. This sounds to me like a myth, perhaps because to me Dylan sounds not so much like a black bluesman, but like a young rock’n’roller yearning after the blues. I don’t mean that as an insult, necessarily. It’s just that I think Dylan’s early blues have more in common with the Animals and the Stones than with the Delta. Anyway. This is a traditional number.

“Man Of Constant Sorrow.” Released on Bob Dylan. Another traditional song, this one is familiar to everyone now in the rendition found on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Dylan’s version is a little sadder, but no less impressive.

“Fixin’ To Die.” Released on Bob Dylan. Another gutbucket blues, this written by Bukka White. While we're at it, notice how good his guitar playing is on the blues numbers on this album. Usually he just strums, but when he wants to be, Dylan can be a fantastic acoustic guitar player. He'd remind us of that in the '90s on Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong, and you can hear it right here.

“Pretty Peggy-O.” Released on Bob Dylan. Another traditional number; frankly I prefer the Dead’s version of this… At this point, if Dylan had a weakness it was that he sometimes opted for fast-strumming excitement over caressing a melody. He’d learn.

“Man On The Street.” Released on The Bootleg Series. An original, and an outtake. Not Dylan’s most distinguished song, even among his early clutch of compositions. Perhaps it’s most notable for the fact that, while he claimed folk sources for it, it’s been convincingly argued that it betrays the influence of Brecht, showing how widely and intelligently Dylan was reading at this point.

“Gospel Plow.” Released on Bob Dylan. Another jackhammer strummer, a traditional folk-gospel number. But you can’t argue with it.
“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Released on Bob Dylan. Taken, as Dylan tells us, from Eric von Schmidt. A nicely contoured performance, melodic and winning. And time had made it the most prominent of the songs on this first album, as Dylan revived it very pointedly in 1966 and 1976.

“Highway 51.” Released on Bob Dylan. Every Dylan fan coming to this album with a knowledge of his later work remarks on how Dylan only missed it by 10 here… Credited to blues singer Curtis Jones, the best part about it is the turnaround guitar figure that some say was taken from the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie,’ and which Dylan would slow down and recycle for “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” a few years later. More gritty blues.

“House Of The Risin’ Sun.” Released on Bob Dylan. One of the two or three best things on the debut album, a traditional number sung by a lot of the folk revivalists. Dylan’s arrangement was taken from Dave Van Ronk – without Van Ronk’s permission, it turns out. Whatever: it’s a brilliant performance.

“House Carpenter.” Released on The Bootleg Series. But this is probably the best thing recorded at the sessions – so of course it went unreleased. Another ancient ballad. Dylan gives it a truly desperate, haunted reading. Listen close and you can actually see the hills of Hell rising in the distance. Chilling, and awe-inspiring.

“Song To Woody.” Released on Bob Dylan. The first album only included two originals; this was, however, two more than most folk records had. In other words, Dylan was already showing that he was a songwriter, as well as a folksinger. This was the gem of the originals, a fine young tribute to Woody using Woody’s own melody (from, as you know if you're listening along at home, “1913 Massacre”), which Woody probably took from somewhere else.
“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” Released on Bob Dylan. A Blind Lemon Jefferson blues. In all, the first album was promising, and in retrospect quite enjoyable, although it made next to no impression when it was first released. The thing is, by that time – the following March – Dylan had already surpassed it, as we'll soon see. He was daily growing.

Monday, February 2, 2009

James Bond review: The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

CUT TO THE CHASE: It’s the cigar.

BOND, JAMES BOND: This film shouldn’t work. For most people I guess it doesn’t: it’s usually considered one of the worst installments in the series. Even by my own standards it should be at least as mixed a bag as Live And Let Die is.

But somehow, it doesn’t, to put it bluntly, suck. In fact, I consider it the best of the Roger Moore Bonds.

In the end, this film works for the same reason Goldfinger did: because it knows perfectly well what it’s up to. Here, it’s all about the cigar. Moore’s still chomping on that cigar here at key moments – when checking out a belly dancer in Beirut, when waiting for his quarry outside a Macau topless bar, when preparing to infiltrate the bad guy’s compound in Bangkok. As in the previous movie, this simple prop manages to crystallize all the devil-may-care charm and profligate handsomeness that Moore brings to the role.

What Makes Bond Bond: “…if she gets me the Solex Agitator first.” “First? James, you must be good.” And then he raises his eyebrow, as if the thought had never crossed his mind that lesser mortals might not be able to convert bad girls to good merely by sleeping with them.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: Well, the cigar, natch.

BAD GUYS: The other reason this movie succeeds so well is because it gets creative in the villain department, and in the process comes up with perhaps the single best opponent Bond ever faces. Not the scariest or the meanest, necessarily. Just the best.

As we’ve seen, the formula is to pit Bond against an Evil Mastermind with a plot to take over the world/extort gobs of money from the great powers/destroy humanity/whatever. This villain, the idea man, is assisted by one or more Evil Henchmen, hired muscle, whom Bond must fight his way through to get to the Evil Mastermind. Goldfinger/Oddjob, Blofeld/Wint and Kidd, Kananga/Tee Hee, etc.

Here the Evil Mastermind is Hai Fat, who wants to corner the market on solar power and make a fortune—i.e., extort gobs of money from the great powers. His Evil Henchman is Scaramanga, an assassin par excellence.

But they upend the formula by introducing Scaramanga first, then having him bump off Hai Fat halfway through the movie. In effect the mastermind’s evil plot is just a red herring, a decoy, while we get down to the real business of the movie, which is Scaramanga vs. James Bond.

This is a true meeting of equals, of knights in armor jousting. It helps that Christopher Lee, as Scaramanga, is Christopher damn Lee. That dignity, that voice. (The man played Dracula, Saruman, and Scaramanga – how cool is that?) But it also helps that the producers know just what Scaramanga is doing in this piece.

He’s aspiring to be like James Bond. He affects (in terms of the character) an upper-class British accent despite a circus upbringing. When Bond recommends a good wine he takes notes. It nearly drives him round the bend when Bond hints that Scaramanga may not qualify as a true gentleman.

Scaramanga is us.

And, let’s not forget, he has a cigar of his own. That golden gun.

Yes, this movie succeeds because it knows what James Bond is all about.

P.S. Scaramanga, of course, has his own henchman, Nick Nack, played by HervĂ© Villechaize. You’ll be forgiven if, when you see him on Scaramanga’s island, you cry out, “Boss, Boss, de plane, de plane!” Especially if you wait to do it until Bond’s plane lands. But Nick Nack is actually one of my favorite henchmen. It’s his sheer bloodlust that makes him fun to watch: he doesn’t care if Bond dies or Scaramanga—just as long as somebody bites it.

GRATUITOUS SEX: The natural look prevails again, but boy does it prevail. With Maud Adams as the main Bond girl and Britt Eklund in support, this film lacks nothing at all in the Bond Girl department. You can decide for yourself if he locked the right one in the closet.

Carmen du Sautoy deserves special mention for her turn as a Lebanese belly dancer. It’s a close-but-no-cigar moment, however, which leaves this film with a GS quotient of 2. But a good 2.

AND VIOLENCE: This is one of the reasons I say this film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Enter the Dragon came out the year before, and for a stretch in the middle this film apes the martial arts genre as much as its predecessor had blaxploitation. Apes or spoofs; it’s hard to tell, really. The sequence in the martial arts school is pretty badly done, but it might be too charitable to say it was on purpose. (Okay, Hip’s nieces are pretty cool.)

We also get a reprise of the speedboat chases from Live And Let Die – and this meant they just couldn’t resist (why, oh why couldn’t they resist?) bringing back Sheriff Pepper. For the ten minutes he’s in it, this is the worst of the Bonds.

To top it all off, this film furnishes the single best example of what would eventually ruin the Moore-era Bonds. There’s one genuine historic stunt in the film, a car doing a spiral as it leaps over a canal, and it’s a fine jump, reasonably death-defying and more-or-less appropriate to the scene. But they add a goofy sound effect while the car is in the air that totally destroys the mood. Silence would have accented the sight just as well, while not making the stunt into a joke.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Q’s back, and he even earns a measure of M’s wrath right along with 007.

But Scaramanga gets the best gadgets this time around. That car/plane, although we can never decide if it’s cool or silly. And of course his golden gun, which doubles as a pen, a cigarette case, and a lighter. Watch the way Christopher Lee lovingly assembles it prior to use. We may think it’s the gadgets themselves we like about a Bond movie, but in reality, I think it’s the way characters behave with the gadgets. Lee understands this.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Lebanon, Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and an island in the South China Sea. Can’t ask for a better set of exotic locations than that.

ETC.: The title sequence is forgettable, as if the esteemed Mr. Binder is running out of ideas. He’d redeem himself, though. Meanwhile, Lulu’s title song, like so much else about this film, is rather unpopular, but I love it. Aware that she’s not as seductive as Shirley Bassey, she simply attacks the song for all she’s worth. That makes up for a lot: it’s an electrifying performance… Add a double-decker bus, a hang glider, and a private plane to the list of things Bond drives… As I say, this film imitates Enter the Dragon (it even has a mirror stage), it brings back the odious Sheriff Pepper, and it assumes an inappropriate comic tone at moments. All of these should ruin the film. But they don’t.

RATING: 007.