Tuesday, September 7, 2010

David Letterman on The View, 9/7/10

Occasionally we watch The View, and this morning their guest was David Letterman. From the second he walked out, he owned the stage. And for the next forty-five minutes he put on a display of impeccable comic timing, improvisation, and craft. The guy has the best delivery in the business, and some of the quickest reactions. This was a master at work.

It reminded me of how much Letterman has meant to me through the years. From the '80s through the '90s I was aware of him, and watched him when I could - I'm 40, and it's fair to say I was part of the generation that grew up on Letterman's brand of humor. Between periods out of the country and periods when I just didn't own a TV, I never got to watch him regularly until 1999, when I came back from an extended stint in Japan. For the next six or seven years I watched almost every night...until finally it became apparent that he was just going through the motions.

I know a lot of people gave up on him long before that, but I thought he was incredibly strong in the early '00s. His running Campaign 2000 bit in that year was the best commentary (completely dada) on that crazy season in our national life, and of course he was the guy who got us through 9/11. But eventually I had to admit that his show was stale. I stopped watching him regularly a couple of years ago, and I haven't watched him at all in about a year.

Maybe I'll tune in tonight. Because this morning he reminded me of why during many of my years outside the US, Letterman was the piece of American pop culture I missed most: that dry, wiseass wit. I'm on the record as not liking snark, and he basically invented it, but Letterman's different; you can always sense an angry, passionate intelligence just beneath the surface. And even when he's not particularly engaged, he's still probably the best remaining practitioner of a particular, ancient and honorable, brand of professional comedy.

That's a lot of qualifiers, I guess. But anyway, maybe we still need Letterman.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Very early Santana

Santana is a band, not a man, or so goes the theory: in practice, most of Carlos Santana's solo work is pretty indistinguishable from his eponymous band's output, but it is true that his music is always more than just him and some sidemen. And if only because he doesn't sing, Carlos doesn't tend to dominate his bands the way, say, Clapton does his. Santana, when billed as such, is a band.

Of course for most of us there's only one Santana band, the first one. The one that gave us the only three Santana albums that matter*: Santana, Abraxas, and Santana III. The Santana that slew everybody at Woodstock.

But it turns out that this wasn't the first Santana band. It was the second. The first one consisted of Carlos on guitar, Gregg Rolie on keyboards and vocals, David Brown on bass, Marcus Malone on congas, and Bob "Doc" Livingston on drums. The first three, of course, were the instrumental core of the Woodstock-era band, but the two percussions were replaced for the first album.

Is this ur-Santana worth checking out? Surprisingly enough, it is. Where can you check it out? Three places.

First you'll want to track down the 1988 compilation Viva Santana! Hokey name, but worth getting if you're a Santana collector, because it has a ton of rarities. The one that concerns us here is "Ballin'," a demo recorded in late 1967 by this original lineup. A demo, it's called, but it was clearly professionally recorded, and it shows, in six and half minutes of instrumental fire, the musical conception of the classic Santana band already fully-formed. Hot crying guitar, cool caressing Hammond organ, seductive multi-percussionist rhythms. If this is the earliest Santana available, it's a magnificent overture for the man's career.

You'll also want to get the 2004 reissue of the eponymous debut album, the two-disc "Legacy Edition." This is a problematic release; it claimed to include, among its goodies, the complete Woodstock set, but in fact it's missing one song - which later came out on a two-disc set that includes the first album, the complete Woodstock set (for reals this time), but not the other bonus tracks from the Legacy Edition. Typical Sony/Columbia chain-jerking. Anyway, among those bonus tracks are six studio recordings from early 1969 that constitute the band's first attempt at recording their debut album. And although the liner notes to this edition very ungraciously fail to name-check Malone and Livingston, they are in fact the percussionists on these sessions.

Now, these tracks - early drafts of "Soul Sacrifice," "Persuasion," "Treat," "Shades Of Time," and "Jingo," plus a studio take of "Fried Neckbones And Some Home Fries" - are mostly disappointing, just like you'll read in any number of discussions of the classic album. They really are unfocused, slightly dead-sounding jams; particularly disappointing after the excitement of "Ballin'." I'm not sure I can even recommend checking them out, although "Shades Of Time" is interesting because it's not on the live album, so this is the only way to (legitly) check out the early stage in this song's evolution. ...It's worth noting that the liner notes to the live album (see below) mention that the first album was originally going to be called Freeway Jam, after a song by that name recorded during the sessions. But it's not here (although it shows up on the live disc). The notes to the Legacy Edition say this is the complete unreleased album, but is it? Or are we going to get yet another reissue someday with "Freeway" on it? This is Columbia/Sony: of course we are.

The live album. In 1997 Sony, who can do some things almost right, released a two-disc live document called Live At The Fillmore 1968, which features the original lineup. Drawn from shows at the Fillmore West on December 19, 20, 21, and 22, 1968, it was an odd move, coming at a time when the classic Woodstock lineup still hadn't been featured on a full-length live album. But never mind: we're glad we have it. And while we're never minding, let's try to forget about the fact that each disc in the set is under an hour long, while bootlegs from the era suggest that the band had more songs in their repertoire than are represented on this release. We're still glad we have it.

Because it's fantastic music. Carlos, Rolie, and the underappreciated Brown are just tearing it up on these nights, while Malone and Livingston hold their own: they're not Shrieve, Carabello, and Areas, but they hold their own.

The set includes four of the tunes that would eventually make up the first album. "Jingo" and "Soul Sacrifice" are pleasant, but definitely pale in comparison with what they'd become. "Persuasion" has yet to be tightened up into a by-gum-that's-a-pop-song; here it starts out with a shaggy fusion vamp before settling into the song portion. You can see why they stripped it down for the final version, but you can also tell that the earlier arrangement was more fun to play live, and maybe even to hear live. Lots of nuance and drama to this arrangement. But the prize of the familiar numbers is "Treat," stretched out to twice its album length here. Still follows the same basic pattern, but Rolie's piano work benefits from the room to stretch out. This is the Santana band as classic jazzers, a role they pull off with astonishing conviction. They had the goods.

The balance of the album consists of numbers that would never show up on an official album. The Willie Bobo number "Fried Neckbones," Chico Hamilton's "Conquistadore Rides Again," and Albert King's "As The Years Go Passing By," plus the originals "Chunk A Funk" and "Freeway."

Quite simply, these should have been the band's first album, and Santana the second. "Fried Neckbones" and "Conquistadore" are as funky and catchy as anything the classic band ever did, with that confident, at-home looseness that only the Fillmore could breed. "As The Years Go Passing By" is maybe the most assured blues performance to come out of San Francisco that year, and is a welcome representation of the straight-blues side of the band, a side that was fully assimilated into the Latin melange by the time the first album was recorded, but which in the beginning was raw enough that they called themselves the Santana Blues Band.

"Freeway," meanwhile, is...I'd love to hear a studio version of this someday. Live, it's a half hour long, and it almost justifies its length: it's their "Who Do You Love," their "Dark Star," their "Bear Melt": lots of solos all around. I don't mind this kind of thing, obviously; there are some who think this kind of thing was self-indulgent, but (a) what's the point of rock if you're not going to indulge, and (b) you have to understand that these jams were meant for dancing, and as a dancer as well as a musician, when you're in the groove, you don't want it to end, and the whole point of the SF scene was to ask, well, why should it have to end? "Freeway" has a great riffy first seven or eight minutes, before all the solos start, and that's why I'd love to hear a proper studio version: what did they consider the essential part of the song? Live, a lot of it is taken up by a percussion duet, and it's here that the inferiority of the Malone/Livingston battery to the Shrieve/Carabello/Areas team becomes glaringly apparent. But in the last six or so minutes the rest of the band comes back in, and all is forgiven.

An essential listen, made all the more so by the fact that it documents a band that is otherwise all but lost to history.

*For the record, I don't buy this line. I think Caravanserai is interesting, and Welcome and Borboletta are damn near essential albums. I haven't gone beyond them yet.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden (1994)

This was one of Polanski's great ones. I think I like him best when he's at his most political - that is, when he allows his normal psychosexual concerns take on sociopolitical overtones. Here it's sort of the reverse: he's taken a play that seems to have been mostly sociopolitical in its concerns and brought out its psychosexual overtones. This old review by Owen Gleiberman runs them down well: "Death and the Maiden is a true Polanski movie now, a sadomasochistic love story that locks torturer and victim together in a chillingly intimate spiritual embrace."

Where I differ from Gleiberman's take is in seeing the political dimensions of the story being given equal importance. Maybe this is easier for an American to see in 2010 than in 1995, at least an American who's had the scales fall from his eyes with regard to his fellow-citizens' willingness to torture and condone torture. The subject of the movie is torture, and how societies deal with it: that comes through loud and clear.

That's why for me, the husband is the most interesting character. Sigourney Weaver's Paulina is a marvel, "stalk(ing) through the rubble like a battered Amazon queen exacting her revenge," in Charles Taylor's phrase (the other review I linked to above). And Ben Kingsley as the suspect Dr. Miranda is amazing, his final confession being one of the most five minutes of speaking you'll ever see, sketching for us how an ordinary man, with the ordinary load of ingrained lusts and anger, can, in the right circumstances, act like a monster, and how he can explain it himself afterward, and to what degree he can forgive himself.

But the figure of Paulina's husband is the real fulcrum of the drama, as we see him struggle to understand the situation. He's supposed to be a dedicated democrat, a crusader for truth and justice for the victims of the old regime, not to mention that he's Paulina's loving husband. But when her actions, her accusation of the doctor, put him on the spot, we suddenly see how as a man, with a normal load of reflexive misogyny; as a husband, with a normal load of grievance; as a lawyer, with a normal distrust of uncorroborated testimony; as a political figure, with a normal sympathy for authority; as a citizen, with a normal unwillingness to see his kind neighbor as a villain; as a peaceful man, with a normal hesitation to use violence; as all these things and more, he's utterly unequipped to give Paulina's story the credence it deserves, and respond with the action it demands. He hesitates at every key moment. And if he hesitates now, how can we expect the truth and reconciliation commission to work?