Saturday, March 24, 2012

Art Neville: "Arabian Love Call" (1959)

"Arabian Love Call" was the b-side of Art Neville's third and last single for Specialty Records.  It's one of several reasons why, if you like the Neville Brothers' brand of funky-elegant New Orleans r&b, and you already have Treacherous and Treacherous Too (still the necessary first stop for the Brothers' pre-fame stuff), you need to pick up Art Neville: His Specialty Recordings

Detailed info on the Nevilles is surprisingly scarce online.  Even the amazingly detailed fan-created discography is gone (here's the Archive version).  You can read up a little on Art's '50s and '60s recordings here and here.  All I have to add to that is that Art is an underrated vocalist.  He doesn't have the angelic pipes of Aaron or the soul-man slow-burn intensity of Cyril.  What he has instead is a laid-back bluesy assurance and an unfailing sense of fun.  That's the hallmark of the Neville Brothers, their whole oeuvre, as far as I'm concerned:  a joie de vivre that can invest the silliest novelty material with the dignity of serious play.

So, first thing, musically, "Arabian Love Call" has about as much to do with the Middle East as it does the Middle West, to wit, nothing.  It's pure swamp.  Lyrically, it does go on about "way down yonder in a 'Rabian land," but this hardly even rises to the level of Orientalism.  It's just a goof.  Just an excuse to throw together some rangy cowbell, swampy guitar, and juju horns over a rhythm that shimmers like a bayou in moonlight.  It's as evocative and supple as a Duke Ellington number, but with a definitively Neville touch:  that falsetto "love call" that functions as a refrain.  Just this side of a yodel, it connects the song to the deep strain of whacked-out Americana-exotica that produced things like "Indian War Whoop."  It's funny, and it's funky, and it's good.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rush: 2112 (1976)

That wasn’t quite the end of our dalliance with the Necromancer, however.  We made one more journey.  Four of us set out, but only three came back.

It was a Sunday night in December, maybe two weeks after the cliffhanger in not-Venice.  Neck had been talking nonstop about organizing another session – I recognized the ego-adrenaline from the days of my own now-abated mastering of dungeons – but we’d managed to put him off with one excuse or another.  Not that hard to do, since half the party was out of town.

So this evening Art, Vito, and I were in the dorm’s common room, watching a football game – a team I grew up liking but whose name I can’t now bring myself to say because, dawg, it’s racist.  Most of the seats in the room are occupied by jocks, of which this dorm had more than its share;  Art, Vito, and I were on a set of couches slightly off in the corner, since Vito and, to a greater extent, I had a proud (fear-inflected) disdain for jocks.  Art was always at perfect ease with them;  he was good at sports, too.   

Anyway, we were our own little group there, trying to play it cool. Then Neck thunders in.  He walks up (in black jeans and a Mötorhead t-shirt), stands right between us and the TV, and shouts, “ROAD TRIP.”  No exclamation point.

The jocks laugh.  At us.  We're red-faced, but we're also freshmen – road trip. 

In five minutes we’re all piled into Neck’s car:  an old turquoise-blue Firebird with the silver firebird on the hood.  A surprisingly muscley car for a Dungeon Master (I thought that even at the time):  maybe Neck was really for real (was what I thought the first time I saw it)(now I thought nothing).

Five minutes after that we’re all fueled up with 7-11 junk food for the late-night drive.  And then we’re on the highway.  It’s only then that Neck tells us where we’re going.  “THE DISTRICT.”  And he doesn’t seem all that happy about it.  Not that we can hear much nuance in his voice over the Anthrax on the tape deck.

LOSC was within reasonable road trip distance of Washington, which was never called that by anybody who lived close enough to know better:  always DC or the District.  Vito was in the front seat;  Art and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  Sure, it was close enough, but what was there to do at midnight on a Sunday in DC?  In December?  For nerds?  Case the Smithsonian?

Then:  “Motherfucking Sandy,” muttered Neck.  That we heard.

Ah-hah.  We knew that Sandy had dumped Neck:  we’d all seen it happen.  It had been epic:  a silence louder than bombs (not that any of us would admit to listening to the Smiths – sadly, not yet).  And we knew that Neck still brooded over it, there in his lair at the end of the hall. 

“Is that it?  Are you headed to see Sandy?”  I asked, because I also knew that Sandy lived in DC.  Her parents had a condo in Georgetown.  I mentioned this to the others. 

“Cool, dude,” said Art.  “Is she having a party or something?”

“Motherfucking Sandy,” was all Neck said.  Quiet-like.

“I don’t think it’s a party, boys,” said I, in my best wary-gunfighter voice.

“Then what the fuck do you need us for, dude?” asked Vito.  Who had a fairly short fuse for bullshit.  “A road trip’s one thing, but dude.”

“Motherfucking Sandy,” repeated Neck.

We all fell silent.  An hour passed.  Anthrax turned into Ratt.  (Ratt?  Were they still together?)  We were doing at least seventy on a dark country highway, but hey, it was Neck’s license, not ours.  Still it was good to hit the Beltway, some lights, and enough traffic that the Necromancer had to slow down.

Only then did he speak again.  “MOTHERFUCKING SANDY,” was what he said.

We’d been, as it were, lulled into complacency:  this shook us up.  “WHAT THE FUCK, DUDE?” commented Vito.

“She won’t take my calls.  The bitch.  A year we were together, and now she won’t take my fucking calls.”

“But dude,” observed Art, “you boinked someone else.”

(I swallowed hard at this.  As I say, my interlude with Sandy was barely sandy at all, but we’d been in the neighborhood of the beach, at least, and I sure didn’t want Neck to know it.)

“So fucking what?” theorized Neck.  “So does she – all the time.  We've got an arrangement.  I do it, and she does it, and it’s always been fine before.  That’s the only way we can make it work, this long distance relationship thing.  We agreed on that at the outset – while we’re apart, we can do what we want, as long as we come back to each other.”

The three of us pondered this.  Because it didn’t make any fucking sense.  I mean, let’s count the ways – in fact, Art, Vito, and I did count the ways, later that morning, after we’d parted from Neck and could speak freely.  And this is more or less what we said.  First of all – why would anyone want to cheat on Sandy?  She was fine (this was my contribution).  Second of all – who would really believe a relationship like that could work?  (This was Vito’s contribution – I wasn’t so sure - I always had a deeper hippie-nostalgic streak than the other two.)  Third of all – dude, you said yourself that you can do what you want while you’re apart, but Sandy was on the same campus with you that weekend, and still you had to dip your wick in other tallow.  What did you expect?  (This was Art’s contribution.)  And, finally (all together now) – are you trying to tell us, Neck, that you get laid regularly?

All that was said later.  At the moment, what we did was change the subject a little. 

“Why are we going to the District then, and not Collegeville?”  Art.

“I tried that – I drove up there on Tuesday.  And Wednesday.  And Thursday.  But she wouldn’t buzz me into the dorm, and nobody else would let me in.  You have to have a key.  (Motherfucking Sandy.)”

“So you’re going to her parents’ house?  What makes you think she’ll be there?”  Me.

No answer.

By this time we had exited the Beltway and were in the city.  Neck obviously knew the DC streets better than us – none of us had cars – but maybe not as well as he thought, because we were soon cruising past the Mall.  Nowhere near Georgetown.  "Hey, there’s the Air and Space Museum – man, I haven’t been there since I was a kid.  We should go – road trip.”


“What are you going to do when you see her?”  Me.


Neck pulled the car over.  He got out.  “Gotta piss,” he was mumbling.  Come to think of it, so did I, and evidently so did Art and Vito.  Super Big Gulps of Dr. Pepper all around.

We were behind the Mall, over behind the Jefferson Memorial, right by the Potomac.  There was snow on the ground – it was colder here than back at school.  Neck tromped off over the grass toward the river.  We followed until we came to a ledge.  There was the Potomac, flowing silently and blackly by beneath us.  A few lights across the way;  all the weight of history and civics behind us.  A clear black sky above, studded with stars.  Silence all around.  No cops to be seen.  And soon four shafts of gold arced gently to join their pollution to that flowing through the nation’s capital.  For a moment – the last moment – the four of us were united in defiant guyhood.  Joking, laughing, hooting.

We zipped up.  Neck was first;  by the time the other three of us had turned around he was halfway back to the car.  And then we saw it – all three of us must have noticed it at once.  The pistol sticking out of Neck’s back pocket.

Art was quickest.  He tackled Neck from behind.  Really skillfully, too – flattened him easily, pinned him in the snow.  I got there next and took the pistol out of Neck’s pocket.

But I’d never held a gun before, and having it in my hand kind of paralyzed me – I didn’t know what to do.  I just stood there, as the world went quiet.  Neck must have been cursing, but I didn’t hear him. 

I looked up from the pistol to see Vito looking at me strangely.  I must have looked just as strange at him.  I held the gun out to him.

Vito took it and tossed it into the river.

Art let Nick up.  Nick was furious.  So furious he couldn’t say anything.  He just got in the car and squealed off.  Actually burned rubber.

Art looked at Vito, Vito looked at Art, they both looked at me.  And then we burst out laughing.  More to relieve the tension than anything, I suspect;  certainly there wasn’t anything amusing about it.  But we were all three of us good suburban boys, lives never touched by gun violence, and even now, even having held the thing in my hands, the whole thing still seemed a bit unreal.

There wasn’t anything more we could do, though.  Nobody knew Sandy’s phone number or address.  No way to warn her.  Anyway, without a gun, what could he do?  That it didn’t occur to us to flag down a cop probably means we didn’t think Nick really had it in him;  that, or we just felt guilty about pissing into the Potomac. 

It was before cell phones;  plus, it was a road trip.  So we spent the rest of the darkness wandering around the District, crisscrossing the Mall, looking at monuments.  We climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to commune with Abe – I pointed out what I’d discovered on a school trip years before, the place in the Emancipation Proclamation where the chiselers made an E instead of an F and had to wedge a rock in so it didn't read EUTURE.  We walked past the ‘Nam memorial, thinking about fathers and uncles.  We circled the Washington Monument, and walked past the Capitol.  We did a lot of walking, but it was cold and we had to keep warm.  Discovered whole herds of monuments nobody’s ever noticed.  Ended up sitting beneath the statue of Queen Isabella outside the Organization of American States for an hour, shooting the breeze, arguing politics (just because we liked philosophy better doesn’t mean we were totally uninterested in the polis and its ways). 

Looking back on it, two things strike me about this night.  The first is how scarce and mellow the cops were.  I mean, three kids wandering around downtown DC at night, plainly drunk (although in fact we hadn’t had a drop), and nobody stopped us.  We barely saw a police:  mainly it was just us and the homeless.  From the perspective of today it’s unthinkable;  but it should have been unthinkable at the time, too, because as we wandered away from Iz’s skirts we saw some street crews cordoning off sidewalks, and much later, over coffee in a McDonald’s, we saw a paper and realized why:  Gorbachev was arriving in DC later that day.

The other thing that I realize is that this night was what cemented my friendship with Art and Vito.  It wasn’t the heroics with the gun – I protest that it wasn’t that at all.  It was that aimless wandering through the marble, bronze, and granite gardens of the capital that did it, and everything we talked about.  Precious little of which I can recall today with anything but sentimental vagueness.  But that was it:  that was when we realized, although without the perspective that retrospection brings, with only the urgency of the moment, that it was us three against the world, us three who could change the world, us three for whom the world was made, and could be unmade, and remade.  That night was our unspoken Oath of the Peach Garden.

John LeCarré: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)

One thing I was wondering about when I came to the book from the movie was whether Smiley in the book could possibly have the same sheer presence as in the movie.  It's not all Gary Oldman's performance, although it mostly is;  it's also, in the film, a matter of writing and mise en scene.  I mean, we've been watching this guy for fifteen minutes, it seems like, in scene after scene, totally riveted by him, before we finally hear a peep out of him.  The film presents Smiley as this intensely inward-turned guy who rules the room through the strength of his unprepossessingness.  It's a trait made for film, where you can convey this without having to state it.  How do you convey it in a book?

And it's true that the Smiley of the book isn't a cipher in the same way the Smiley of the film is;  in that sense, the reading of the film that I advanced is untenable in the book.  We inhabit Smiley's point of view for most of the book, and if LeCarré is cagey about telling us everything in Smiley's mind at any given time, at least I felt that we were getting enough of it to be assured that Smiley isn't a mole.  Not that the moral ambiguity is lessened much - LeCarré just brings it in elsewhere, through more extensive internal monologues by various characters, or characteristically fitful dialogue.  In some ways the book's moral ambiguity is richer, because we know more about Haydon, about Guillam, about Alleline, and of course about Smiley.

But LeCarré's Smiley still has something of that silent domination - it's clear the filmmakers got it from the book.  It's just constructed in different ways.  At one point he's described as sitting like a Buddha - so LeCarré is telling us how to perceive him.  Elsewhere we just see the effect he has on people - his primary interrogation technique is silent waiting, and we can see how it makes the other party talk.

And in other ways LeCarré's Smiley is even more interesting.  In the film, as I say, I found him dominant from the first scene he was in, even though on another level I was conscious that we were "supposed" to see him as a rumpled, nebbishy old man.  In the book, through giving Smiley some of the feebleness of age (occasional forgetfulness, etc.), and more than that through letting us see his thoughts at every step, his doubts, his petty reactions, we actually feel him as a rumpled, nebbishy old man long before we start to sense his inner steeliness.  It's effective.  It makes the book a character study, as much as anything - a collection of character studies, really, as we get to know Prideaux, Guillam, and a few others almost as well as we know Smiley.

I think I'm hooked.