Friday, December 5, 2008

Elvis is Everywhere!

Okay, so Elvis Costello is officially everywhere. He's got a new talk show on the Sundance channel, where he talks to various music legends, he's been appearing in an opera with Sting, he was just on a rerun of David Letterman the other night, and he was on Stephen Colbert's Christmas special. He's a busy guy. It's funny how sometimes once you start paying attention to someone, they suddenly become ubiquitous.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Elvis Costello, "The First 10 Years"


I have to admit, I don't know a lot about Elvis Costello and his music. I've always known who he is, and I've heard for a long time that he's really awesome, but for whatever reason I had never really listened to him. Getting into Nick Lowe really made me make the final jump and actually buy an Elvis CD, so I recently bought "The Best of Elvis Costello-The First 10 Years." It's awesome. Now I'm beginning to understand why people like this guy! He matches catchy melodies to literate, intelligent lyrics, how can you go wrong? He's also British, so that gives him like 10 extra coolness points right there. (Why are all the cool people British? Someone needs to look into this.)


Anyway, I'm blown away by Elvis's lyrics, here are some samples, thanks to the CD booklet: (extra credit will be given to those who can name which songs these come from)


"Oh, I said, 'I'm so happy, I could die.' She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy."


"Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking when I hear the silly things that you say."


"You snatch a tune, you match a cigarette, she pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet."


"They say you better listen to the voice of reason, but they don't give you any choice."


"And I would rather be anywhere else but here today."


"The long arm of the law slides up the outskirts of town."


"Her body moves with malice, do you have to be so cruel to be callous?"


"There's a girl here and she's almost you."


"All your compliments and your cutting remarks are captured here in my quotation marks."


"She said that she was working for the ABC news, it was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use."


"And though the sparks would fly, I thought our love was fireproof."


"It's the stupid details that my heart is breaking for, it's the way your shoulders shake and what they're shaking for."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Richard Burton in "Bluebeard"


Over Halloween weekend I watched the incredibly campy 1972 movie "Bluebeard," in which Richard Burton stars as the titular character. It's a slight updating of the old legend/fairy tale, where a man with a blue beard keeps murdering his wives. It's a typical Euro-pudding production, with a cast of winsome international starlets, who all have topless scenes. (Except for Raquel Welch, humorously cast as a nun with an amorous past.)

"Bluebeard" was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who was actually a well-respected director back in the 40's and 50's. His most notable films are probably "Crossfire," "The Caine Mutiny," "Raintree County," and "The Young Lions." Dmytryk was actually one of the infamous "Hollywood 10," a group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted because of their Communist sympathies. After going to jail and refusing to name names, Dmytryk reversed course, and ended up naming names to HUAC. (The House Un-American Activities committee, who were investigating Communist influences in Hollywood.) Somehow, this does not seem to have hurt Dmytryk's career, as this all happened in the early 50's, and by 1954 he was directing "The Caine Mutiny," a prestige picture any director would have been happy to helm.

By 1972, Richard Burton's star was beginning to wane. His first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor would come to a close soon, and the public seemed to have tired of reading about him buying her another ginormous diamond. Burton's career had soared in the 1960's, and he ended the decade starring in two very successful films, "Where Eagles Dare," alongside Clint Eastwood, and "Anne of the Thousand Days," in which he played Henry VIII, and for which he was nominated for an Oscar. (He didn't win, of course.) After that, Burton took a well-deserved year off. What was his first project after his break? A low-budget World War II flick called "Raid on Rommel," made only because there was leftover footage from Rock Hudson's World War II flick "Tobruk." Yeah, it's a turkey. And who did Richard Burton have to fight to get the role in this illustrious movie? Robert Stack! I'm sorry, Robert Stack was great, but he's not in the same league as Richard Burton. Richard Burton should not have been fighting Robert Stack for parts! (Although I've heard that Burton needed to make some quick money to insure Liz's diamonds.) So, Burton's career was on a downward path, and it would soon become a downward spiral. From what I can tell, it seems like he was taking pretty much any part that came his way during this period.

Anyway, now that we've established the past of the director and leading man, on to the film itself. "Bluebeard" is a self-aware campy horror flick, featuring lots of female nudity, a garish color scheme, and probably the ugliest interior decoration ever seen in a castle. Burton's character was a famous World War I flying ace whose face was disfigured/damaged in a plane crash, hence the blue beard. Which actually is blue, and is totally pasted on. (It almost falls off in the scene where Burton's rowing a boat!) We see him marry his first wife, (Nathalie Delon, ex-wife of French movie god Alain Delon) and she is "accidentally" shot while hunting. Burton's character becomes a Nazi, and we see him burning down Jewish ghettos. (Look for the young violinist, he will be important later. The opening credits told me this, because the actor was given the billing, "and so and so, as The Violinist.") There is a nice parallel between the Nazis hunting down the Jews and the hunting party slaughtering animals in the next scene. But it's extremely heavy-handed and incredibly brutal, as we actually see the animals get killed. It's one of the more disturbing things I've seen in a film, if you're an animal lover, you will be sickened. And I'm pretty damn sure it was real.

After the first wife is shot, we see Burton marry Joey Heatherton, one of those cute, sort-of-talented starlets of the 60's and early 70's. Here "Bluebeard" starts stealing from the "Psycho" playbook, as it turns out that Burton's maid has kept the corpse of Burton's mother, and obsessively combs the dead mother's hair. (In one of the best lines, Burton deadpans, "Mother did so like having her hair combed.") So Joey discovers the freezer in which Burton keeps the corpses of his previous dead wives, and then we flashback as Burton tells Joey about his dead wives. (If this movie were a Robyn Hitchcock song, it would be "My Wife and My Six Dead Wives.") Joey doesn't seem too terribly shocked that he's killed all these women, she's more interested to know why. It turns out that every time Bluebeard marries a new woman, he likes her, until she wants to have sex with him. At the moment she finally offers herself to him, he kills her. (I think he might have some issues...) It's all treated strictly for laughs, like the proto-feminist who discovers she likes it when Bluebeard hits her. Burton is actually surprisingly good in the role, although he was never known for comedy. It's rather amusing to see him find reasons for not sleeping with these women. And although the movie itself is totally over the top, Burton's performance doesn't go over the top, which is nice. The screenwriters thankfully did not decide that because they had one of the world's greatest actors, they should write him pages and pages of dialogue. Even though Burton is the only real actor in the film, they don't make him carry it all on his shoulders.

So we go through wife after wife, the most amusing being Raquel Welch as a nun, who tries to get Burton to sleep with her in a church. After all this, Burton locks Joey in the freezer and goes off to the train station to meet some incoming Nazi buddy. Which brings us to the Nazi point. Even though there are swastikas all over this movie, they don't really look like the Nazi swastikas, they look squashed, more like a fat cross. I assume the reason for this is that "Bluebeard" was filmed in Hungary, and they must have had some law prohibiting swastikas from being displayed, even in trashy, Euro-pudding horror movies. It's just another bit of weirdness in this odd film. So, Burton is at the train station, where he is shot and killed by...wait for it...yes, the violinist whose parents were killed by Burton! (I told you he would be important later!) The violinist rescues Joey, who then gets to marry her vaudeville dancing partner. All's well that ends well.

But being the Richard Burton scholar that I am, I have more tidbits about the making of the film. Burton, who was one of the great readers of the 20th century, was disappointed to find out there wasn't much literature on modern Hungary. Thanks to Melvyn Bragg's excellent biography of Burton, we have excerpts from Burton's notebooks, here's Burton preparing to leave for Hungary:

"Tomorrow to Hungary. I am looking forward to it with excitement. The very name Budapest smacks of romance and tragedy and wild Magyar music. It cannot, simply cannot be dull, regardless of friends' warnings that it is the most depressing capital in Europe...I went to the Lion bookshop yesterday and bought yet another pile of books for the ten-week stay in Buda and Pest. Cadogan's diaries, A.L. Rowse's two vols, The Early Churchills and The Later Churchills, Solzhenitsyn's Full Circle, Chosen Words by Ivor Brown. Two dual-language Penguins on Mallarme and French poetry of the 19th century. A book by Auberon Waugh-son of Evelyn. Isaac Deutscher, Red China, Russia and the USA-I think it's called. A Hungarian grammar. And a handful of thrillers. So we should have more than enough to get through ten weeks."

The above is exactly why I like Richard Burton so much, and why I would have been fascinated to have had a conversation with him.

While in Budapest, Liz Taylor turned 40, and Burton threw an immense birthday part for her. However, because of Liz's jealousy, he was forced to disinvite his nubile co-stars! (Liz punched one of the actresses when she got a little too into her kissing scenes with Richard.) Princess Grace, Ringo, David Niven, and Michael Caine were among the guests. According to Bragg, "Burton promised to give the equivalent of the price of the party to a good cause." He then gave Peter Ustinov, an ambassador for UNICEF, a check for $45,000! Bragg says that Burton had decided to move back to England, ending his status as a tax exile, and teach at Oxford. His life was coming together. And then his brother Ifor died. Ifor was really more like a father to Richard, he was Richard's role-model. (Burton was the 12th of 13 children, and Ifor was quite a bit older than Richard.) Ifor had been paralyzed four years earlier when he slipped on a step at Burton's house in Switzerland and broke his neck. Burton never forgave himself for the accident, and Ifor's death plunged him into an abyss of alcoholism, from which he just barely extricated himself. At one point in 1973-74, he was given just six weeks to live. Burton replied, "I'm amused you think I can be killed off that easily." He was somehow able to pull himself together personally, but his career was in a shambles, until his comeback on Broadway in Equus in 1976. But that's another story.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock, "Luminous Groove"


I just finished listening to all of Robyn Hitchcock's box set, "Luminous Groove" this week, and I'm blown away by it. It's a 5-CD set, so I'm not going to go over everything thoroughly right this minute. Suffice it to say, if you like Robyn, you'll love this box set. It includes Robyn's first three albums with his backing band the Egyptians, which was basically Robyn's former band the Soft Boys, minus Kimberely Rew. Rew went on to form Katrina and the Waves, and wrote "Walking on Sunshine." (Do you think people were ever confused when they found out that Kimberely and Robyn are both guys?) Anyway, the three albums are "Fegmania!" the live "Gotta Let This Hen Out!" and "Element of Light." All three albums show Robyn's signature writing style backed by a band that knew how to get the most out of his melodies. Robyn's lead electric guitar is given a very prominent role on these three discs, and it shows what a great guitar player he is. The melodies are jangly and catchy, and it was during this time period, the mid 1980's, that Robyn started to develop a cult following in the US.

Robyn is a great songwriter, but it's difficult for me to separate the wheat from the chaff. I generally like all of his songs, but it's tough to pick one over the others. It's like, "Okay, this song is good, it has a catchy melody and weird lyrics. Okay, the next song also has a catchy melody and weird lyrics. Okay, ALL of his songs have catchy melodies and weird lyrics!" That's perhaps a slight exaggeration, but Robyn's music is very consistent, and I mean that in a good way. He has a real gift for crafting memorable melodies and creating interesting images with his lyrics. I think Robyn could have had more mainstream success with his work if he had stopped writing about jam and bees and fish and wrote simpler, more mundane lyrics, because his melodies are so catchy, but I'm sure the surreal writing style makes it hard for some people to follow his music. I certainly can't claim to understand all of his lyrics. But if he simplified his writing style, he wouldn't be being true to himself and his vision. I'm glad that Robyn has followed his own path, clearly he didn't want to sell out.

In addition to the three albums, "Luminous Groove" also includes a 2-CD set of rarities, "A Bad Case of History." One disc is unreleased studio recordings, and one disc is live recordings. (Some of the live recordings come from Minneapolis's legendary concert venue First Avenue.) These two discs are excellent, they show how in sync the Egyptians were.

Some of the standouts on this set are:

Egyptian Cream
I'm Only You
My Wife and My Dead Wife
Heaven
The Cars She Used to Drive-live
Winchester
Somewhere Apart-(which could pass as a John Lennon song from Double Fantasy)
Beautiful Queen
So You Think You're In Love-live
Chimes of Freedom-live
The Wreck of the Arthur Lee-live

If you like Robyn, check out "Luminous Groove." You won't be disappointed.

Album of the Day


Over at allmusic.com, the Album of the Day is Robyn Hitchcock's "Black Snake Diamond Role." I have no idea what that title means, but it's still a great album. It's Robyn's first solo album, released in 1981, and reissued by Yep Roc last year as part of the "I Wanna Go Backwards" box set. It basically sets the template for Robyn's career, melodic pop brushing up against surreal wordplay. Go check it out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

House's Dad



This week's episode of "House" made me again recall the similarities between House and Patrick McGoohan's Number 6, from "The Prisoner." House's Dad died, and House confides to Wilson that he discovered his father wasn't really his father. House's real Dad was a friend of the family, whom House apparently bears some resemblance to. This character was said to have been at his Dad's funeral, but we never got to see him on screen. I know who should have played him! Patrick McGoohan! It would have been perfect!

I Met Martin Sheen!

Okay, so this week was a good week for meeting people. On Tuesday afternoon, Martin Sheen spoke at a rally for Al Franken, who is running for the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. (Yes, Al Franken from SNL.) Al actually wasn't at the rally, because he was being interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio. It was at a Mexican restaurant on Lake Street, kind of a random place for a rally, but whatever. There's a large space upstairs where they have dances and entertainment, and that's where the rally was. Keith Ellison, who represents the Congressional district that includes most of Minneapolis, spoke and introduced Martin. Keith Ellison is also the only Muslim serving in the U.S. Congress. (He actually did take his oath of office on a Koran!) Martin spoke for about 10 or 15 minutes, and wove some quotations and stories into his pitch for Al Franken. Oh, I wish that Martin Sheen was the President in real life! He's such a cool guy.

After Martin spoke the rally was basically over, and Martin was talking to whoever wanted to talk to him. My Mom was at the rally too, she wouldn't have missed it for the world. She's been a huge Martin Sheen fan since she saw him on TV in 1973 in "The Execution of Private Slovik." Martin actually spent time talking to everyone he met, finding out some common thread or something to talk to them about. He would ask people questions, and he was totally locked in to the conversation. He's honestly interested in people, he would make a great politician. I got to shake his hand, and tell him that I really admired his work as an actor, and his political activism. My Mom talked to Martin for a minute, and Martin insisted on getting a picture with us! (I didn't bring my camera, so some guy who was there taking pictures took the picture.) Martin said, "I need a picture with these two!" He's the nicest guy! It was really great to meet someone I've liked and respected for a long time, and have them be even cooler than I thought they would be. My Mom thought the same thing. So, that's my brush with fame this week!

I Met Nick Lowe!

Last Saturday night I saw Nick Lowe live at the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis, and after the show I got to meet him! It was really a great show, very similar to when I saw him last year at the Fine Line. But the acoustics at the Dakota are much better. Nick performed solo, he really should do a solo live album. He really attacks his guitar, I'm surprised he didn't break any strings! The crowd was really great, very appreciative of Nick.

Nick even did a new song, called "I Read A Lot." It was excellent, a sad but gorgeous song about how the narrator reads a lot now that his girlfriend has left him. In introducing the song, Nick said "People fall into two categories when you say you're going to do a new song. They either say, 'I must hear it right away, another nugget of brilliance from this man, how does he do it, when does he sleep?' Or they say, 'How long is this going to take?' I must admit, I fall into the second category." Well, when it comes to Nick Lowe, I definitely fall into the first category! And I'm greedily hoping there's more new songs on the way.

After the show a group of people were waiting by the backstage/green room area, and Nick was signing autographs, posing for pictures, and chatting with people. I was excited, as I had wasted quite a while after the Fine Line show hoping to meet Nick, with no luck. I heard Nick tell the guy in front of me that he was hoping to tour with a band next year, and that he has a best-of coming out next year. I went to the concert with my Mom, who is as big a Nick Lowe fan as I am, and she was pretty excited to meet him too. (She thinks Nick is pretty cute, in addition to being a great singer and songwriter.) So I got to shake Nick's hand and talk to him for a minute, and stand around while someone found a Sharpie so he could sign our CD's. (I had stupidly assured my Mom that Nick would have a Sharpie. He didn't.) I learned that Nick is left-handed, which just makes him that much cooler in my book. (I'm left-handed as well.) Nick is quite handsome up close, with his white hair and piercing blue eyes, but then you know that if you've seen the cover of his album "The Convincer." (Just seeing that CD cover when it came out made me wonder, "Who is that guy?" But I didn't just buy the CD at the time. I should have.) I told Nick, "I think you're one of the great songwriters," because I had to say something to articulate how much his music means to me. He seemed pleased that someone would say that about him, he said, "Thank you very much. And thanks for bringing your Mum along!" What a nice guy!

So that was my meeting Nick Lowe story, here's the set-list, I think I have all the songs, but not in perfect order:

People Change
Soulful Wind
When I Write the Book (so glad he played that!)
Lately I've Let Things Slide
What's Shakin' on the Hill
Long Limbed Girl
Hope For Us All
All Men Are Liars
I Trained Her to Love Me
(after those 2 songs Nick said, "Now we're through the controversial part of the show, we've made it to the other side, which doesn't always happen.")
Man That I've Become
Has She Got a Friend?
I Read a Lot-new song
Cruel to be Kind
I Live On a Battlefield
What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?
Without Love
Rome Wasn't Built in a Day
I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

encore:
The Man In Love
The Beast In Me
2nd encore:
7 Nights to Rock

It was a great show and a great night.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

As I Write This Letter to Ringo...

If you've been putting off writing that fan letter to Ringo Starr, you'd better hurry up, because as of next week, he won't be answering fan mail! He posted a video on his website about this, and if it's postmarked after October 20th, "It's gonna be tossed," Ringo says. Ringo's reasoning is that "I have too much to do." Which sounds like a reasonable excuse, the man's an ex-Beatle, I'm surprised he has time to answer ANY fan mail! In the video Ringo sounds a bit cranky. Well, as cranky as Ringo can sound, anyway. It might have been nice to say, "I appreciate all the stuff people send, but I don't have time for it." But he's also been living under a microscope for about 45 years now, so I understand if he's lost a little patience. And I'm sure people send him all kinds of crazy crap.

Interesting fact, I have read somewhere in my Beatle studies that Ringo actually got more fan mail than the other three Beatles. The reason supposedly was that girls thought they would have more of a chance with Ringo than the others! So it wasn't just a cute scene in "A Hard Day's Night," he really does have mountains of fan mail to respond to! Just like the episode of the Simpsons Ringo guest-starred (sorry) on! Or, maybe people saw the Simpsons episode and really thought he responded to EVERY piece of fan mail that made it's way onto his desk.

I think Bob Spitz contradicts this in his book "The Beatles," and says that Ringo hardly got any fan mail, and had no idea how to respond to it, but I like my story better. (I really did read it somewhere, honestly.) Spitz also portrays Ringo as pretty much a doofus, and doesn't make much of an attempt to really understand him. In one passage, after the Beatles quit touring in 1966, Spitz basically says, "Ringo stayed at home and played with his cameras. He was a simple lad." Okay, I'm not going to make the claim that Ringo is the smartest guy on Earth, but give him a little more credit than that! (Spitz is also pretty dismissive of George Harrison, which is a big no-no in my book. Spitz is kind of like, "There were John and Paul...and then there were these two other guys.") Sure, the Beatles were three absolute geniuses and one normal guy, but that's nothing to knock Ringo about. He's the Everyman Beatle. It's not Ringo's fault he joined a band with three of the greatest songwriters ever! For anyone who knocks Ringo, I would say to them, "And what songs would you have written for the White Album and Abbey Road? How would you have competed for space with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison?" Ringo did a damn fine job.

Ringo was the perfect drummer for the Beatles, both in personality and in drumming ability. He wasn't a virtuoso like John Bonham or Keith Moon, but the Beatles' music didn't call for that. Ringo pushed his own ego aside and did what he thought was the best drum part for each song. He served the songs rather than himself. If you have your doubts, go listen to "Rain." Drummer Steve Smith, (who drummed with Journey for a number of years) said, "One of Ringo's great qualities was that he composed unique, stylistic drum parts for the Beatles songs. His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song." Which is totally true. (Okay, so I got this quote from Ringo's Wikipedia page, it's still a good quote.)

Anyway, peace and love to Ringo, the drummer for the greatest band ever! And I should get going, because I need to get my diorama of an octopus's garden postmarked before October 20th!

CNN Hearts Ron Sexsmith!

There's another article on CNN.com about Ron Sexsmith, currently touring in support of "Exit Strategy of the Soul." (It's a great album, go buy it!) It's at least the second article they've had about him lately, it's nice to see him get some press. Here's the link to the article:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Music/10/14/ron.sexsmith/index.html?iref=newssearch

At least this time they mention Ron by name in the headline, when I first read it, it was: "Songwriter wanted to be Elton, happy to be himself." And I was like, why would I want to read about someone who wanted to be Elton John? If you could be like anyone, why on earth would you pick Elton John? Then I saw it was about Ron, and I read it. Also, the CNN story about the Kinks' box set credited Ron with giving them the tip. H'mmm...I guess Ron has some special ability to read Ray Davies's mind...Anyway, the piece also gives a nice little shout out to Nick Lowe. So if you don't know about Ron, go read about him and listen to his music. He's a very talented songwriter. I wanted to go see Ron when he was in town a couple of weeks ago, but I was really sick, so I missed him. Oh well, next time.

And as long as I'm talking about CNN, I heart CNN's post-debate coverage last week, because I got to see three of my CNN crushes, Campbell Brown, Suzanne Malveaux, and Soledad O'Brien! Sigh...I would be in Soledad's focus group of undecided voters anytime! Of course, I'm already decided, but that's not the point. I love it when Campbell Brown just barely masks her complete and utter contempt for Sarah Palin! (It's cute.) And I'm sad that I don't get to see Kyra Phillips on "American Morning" anymore, now that Kiran Chetry is back from maternity leave. (Kiran is still pretty cute, though.) Okay, okay, so maybe I'm a CNN junkie, but I can quit anytime I want to! Just not before the election!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008


The passing of Paul Newman was not totally unexpected, as reports about his health have been commonplace over the last 6 months, but it was still a very sad day. Newman was one of my very favorite actors, one of the all-time great film stars, and a lifelong Democrat. (Among many other things, devoted husband, dedicated philanthropist, etc.) His star shone brightly in Hollywood for fifty years, a rarity in film history, and his many memorable roles have touched all of us.

From the very beginning of his career, it was clear that Newman would be a different kind of actor, a different kind of star. His first movie was a flop, a Biblical epic called The Silver Chalice. Newman was given the star buildup, but he distanced himself from the finished product when he took out an ad in the Hollywood trade papers apologizing for the film and his performance. You would think that this would have been a bad move for his career, but there was no lasting effect. His next movie was Somebody Up There Likes Me, a biopic of boxer Rocky Graziano, and it made Newman a star. The role had originally been intended for James Dean, but after his death Newman inherited the role. By the end of the 50's, Newman's career was in full swing, after twin triumphs in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer. (It was on the set of Long, Hot Summer where he met Joanne Woodward, and one of Hollywood's greatest love stories began.)

But the 1960's would make Paul Newman an icon. Movies like The Hustler, Hud, and Cool Hand Luke made him the epitome of cool. Like Steve McQueen, he was a rebel who played by his own rules. He finished out the decade in the first buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring alongside a relative newcomer, Robert Redford. (The studio wanted a more famous co-star, like Steve McQueen.) Another, much less famous movie from 1969, Winning, started Newman's obsession with race car driving.

The 1970's belonged to Newman's friend Redford, although Newman did appear in two huge hits, The Sting, and The Towering Inferno. (Okay, so Towering Inferno isn't a great movie. No one's perfect.) But, The Towering Inferno is notable in that Newman starred alongside that other 60's anti-hero with piercing blue eyes who also loved racing on the side: Steve McQueen. Their relationship seems to have been a bit edgy. McQueen had had a tiny role in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and seems to have still been insecure around Newman, even though he was just as big a star. (Maybe McQueen didn't like being around someone who reminded him so much of himself?) There was a long battle about top billing for the movie, finally resolved with McQueen's name appearing first on the left of the screen, and Newman's name appearing at the right of the screen, but higher up. McQueen also insisted that he and Newman have exactly the same number of spoken lines! Yes, I think Steve was a bit insecure...and Newman could have cared less, it seems.

Newman gave one of his greatest performances in 1982's The Verdict, playing an alcoholic, ambulance-chasing attorney. (It's my own favorite Newman performance.) But he lost the Oscar, as usual. He finally won for playing Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese's sequel to The Hustler. As Newman grew older, it seemed like the only change in his appearance was that his hair went grey. (Eschewing the usual Hollywood vanity, he almost never dyed it for parts.)

I know I'm just skimming over Newman's career here, but it was extremely fitting that his very last performance was as a Hudson Hornet in Cars. Newman's career and life were both truly remarkable, he was someone I had a great amount of respect for, as a great actor and also as a great man. He gave the world so much, and for that we should all be thankful.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn

"Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," by Ashley Kahn, 2000.
John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans at the session for "Kind of Blue," 1959.
I just finished Ashley Kahn's 2000 book, "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece." It's a terrific read, and I would recommend it to any jazz fan, or anyone who is interested in learning more about how this remarkable album was created.

To anyone who doesn't know, Miles Davis's 1959 album "Kind of Blue" is widely regarded as the greatest jazz album ever. It's a landmark of small group jazz improvisation as its finest. The band Miles assembled was one of the greatest ever. On the album, Miles started to explore modal jazz, a very different way of playing jazz. In his book, Kahn explores Miles's career during the 1950's, and what led him to make the album.

Kahn did a great job of researching this book, and he interviewed Columbia Records photographer Don Huntstein and drummer Jimmy Cobb, the only two people still alive who actually witnessed the recording sessions. Sadly, when pianist Bill Evans died in 1980, just twenty-one years after the album was recorded, that left only Miles and Jimmy Cobb still alive from the "Blue" band. Which is really odd, considering that Miles was the oldest member of the band in 1959, at just 32 years old. John Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer in 1967, bassist Paul Chambers died at just 33 of tuberculosis in 1969, Wynton Kelly died at 39 in 1971, and Cannonball Adderley died in 1975 at 46.

Kahn should be praised just for the simple fact that we actually get some insight as to how this classic album was made. The answer is, pretty easily, at just two recording sessions. There was only one complete alternate take from the sessions, an earlier version of "Flamenco Sketches." But that doesn't mean that these were all first-take performances, despite what Bill Evans claimed in the liner notes. Miles would end takes if they weren't going well, giving the players terse directions.

Pianist Bill Evans is probably the person other than Miles most responsible for how "Kind of Blue" sounds. Miles even said, "I wrote that album around Bill Evans's piano playing," even though Evans had quit as a member of Miles's working band by the time of the sessions. Both Evans and Davis loved classical music, even though Evans had more classical training. (Miles had quit Juilliard after just one year.) Davis would often spend time checking out classical scores from museums and libraries, and didn't understand why he couldn't get other jazz musicians to accompany him. But in Evans he found someone similar to explore his ideas with. Miles wrote of Evans in his autobiography, "Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall." Which would also be an accurate way of describing Miles's playing style in the late 50's. Since Miles was not an explosive bop virtuoso like Dizzy Gillespie, he had to get his playing across in a different way. So he started using space more in his solos, (influenced by the pianist Ahmad Jamal) and playing fewer notes to get the emotion of a piece across. He also started playing in the middle register of the trumpet more, as opposed to players like Dizzy who would fire off a rapid series of extremely high notes. Miles also started using a Harmon mute on ballads, which gave his playing a breathy, smoky, late-night sound.

According to Evans, he and Miles wrote "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" together, despite the credits on the album listing Davis as the sole writer of all the tracks. When Evans recorded a version of "Blue In Green" for his own album, "Portrait in Jazz," he insisted that his name be listed alongside Davis's as co-writer. Both songs sound like Evans, and it would seem likely that he got screwed out of his writing credit. But Evans also kind of screwed himself out of his credits, as he wrote the liner notes to "Kind of Blue," and in them doesn't make any mention of his co-writing role. Who knows what really happened between Davis and Evans, but a telling factor would be that Miles never performed "Blue In Green" and "Flamenco Sketches" live, at least not on any known recordings. (He also never did "Freddie Freeloader" live, which seems odd because of its bluesy structure.)

The alchemy that made "Kind of Blue" possible never came together again. Evans had left Miles to form his own trio, and within a year Cannonball and Coltrane had each formed their own groups. And Miles didn't seem interested in revisiting former glories by trying to record another album with the same sound. "Kind of Blue" would remain a unique masterpiece in jazz history. And thanks to Ashley Kahn's book, we get to feel like we were there at the creation.

Kinks Box Set!

Don't hold your breath Kinks fans, but a 6-CD box set is scheduled to come out in the UK on December1st! I read about it on CNN.com, here's the link to the article:

http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2008/09/25/new-old-johnny-cash-kinks/

Apparently, it will include more than 100 tracks, and significant rarities. Woo-hoo! It's about time! Hopefully it will actually come out in the States...it's so going on my Christmas list! And, according to the blog, it was none other than Ron Sexsmith who alerted the writer to the box set. (Go buy Ron's new CD, "Exit Strategy of the Soul," it's excellent.) Maybe this box set will make people think about the Kinks' amazing back catalogue in a different way, it'll be nice to see the full progression of the band across different labels and eras.

Ramsey Lewis, "Appassionata"


Ramsey Lewis led one of my favorite jazz trios of the 1950's and 1960's, the appropriately named Ramsey Lewis Trio. Playing with bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, he recorded one of the most popular jazz records of the 1960's, "The In Crowd," which has the distinction of being a Top Ten hit single and also a Top Ten hit album. His interplay with Young and Holt was remarkable. Lewis was influenced by classical music and rhythm and blues, creating a unique and different sound. One of the first records the trio made in 1956 was a jazzy version of the "Habanera" aria from Bizet's opera "Carmen." Their version of the pop hit "The In Crowd" was a funky and catchy mixture of soul-jazz that found the live audience clapping along. But as Lewis's records gained in popularity, the jazz quotient went down. By the 90's, he was making smooth jazz records, devoid of the talent he had earlier brought to his piano playing.

But in 1999, Lewis returned to the acoustic jazz trio setting for a fine record, "Appassionata." (It's one of my CD's I've had for ages, but haven't gotten around to listening to it until recently.) "Appassionata" shows that Lewis still has the goods on piano, and it mixes classical and gospel influences. He performs versions of Puccini pieces, and a medley of gospel songs, "A Moment Spiritual." Lewis is backed by Ernie Adams on drums, and Larry Gray on bass, who are both fantastic. For anyone who is a fan of Lewis's classic trio recordings, this is a welcome addition to those recordings.

Unfortunately, there are many Ramsey Lewis Trio albums from the 50's and 60's that have not been reissued on CD. But one that has is "Down to Earth," from 1959. It's an excellent jazz trio album. Young gets to solo on "Decisions," and the Trio does a stellar version of "Billy Boy," which I think was recorded by every jazz trio in the 50's. (Miles Davis included a version of it on his 1958 album "Milestones," and he doesn't even play on it!) If you like piano trios, give Ramsey Lewis a try.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Miles Ahead: An Essay on the Music of Miles Davis

Miles Davis
Miles Davis was an incredible musician. Okay, now we're finished with the understatement of the day. I'm reading Ashley Kahn's book "Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece," and I'm amazed by the success Miles had in so many different styles of jazz. He certainly wasn't content to rest on his laurels. As soon as he had success in one field of jazz, he was on to a different challenge. He was on the cutting edge of jazz for 20 years, pioneering several important jazz movements.

Miles started out playing with Charlie Parker in the late 1940's. Parker was one of bebop's biggest stars at the time, and Miles was some kid just out of East St. Louis. But Parker took Miles under his wing. But just as Miles was making his ascendancy in the world of bebop, he changed styles. He made the album, "The Birth of the Cool" in 1949-50 that ushered in a quieter, more subdued style of jazz called "cool jazz" or "West Coast jazz." Miles was heavily influenced by classical music, and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions are the antithesis of the frenzied bebop soloing. One of the featured members of the "Birth of the Cool" band was Gerry Mulligan, who formed a group with the trumpeter Chet Baker that achieved great success in the early 1950's. But Miles didn't make any more records like "Birth of the Cool," at least not until his sessions with Gil Evans. (Who arranged some of the "Cool" sides.) Once Miles got his act together again, and kicked his heroin addiction, the records he made in 1954-55 pointed the way towards hard bop, which was in some ways a reaction to the prevailing West Coast "cool" style that Miles himself had helped usher in. He lead all-star sessions for Prestige records that produced classics like "Bag's Groove." The lineup on "Bag's Groove" is a who's who of 50's jazz: Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson, Horace Silver, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke. Wow.

In 1955, Miles set about putting together a steady group he could lead. He found one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history; pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. And he took a chance on a journeyman tenor sax man from Philadelphia: John Coltrane. Miles and Trane's partnership would change the course of jazz history. This band was known as Miles's first "Classic Quintet," and the recordings they made together set the standard for hard bop playing. And then Miles fired Coltrane because of his heroin addiction. (Trane got clean in 1957, played with Monk for 6 months, and then Miles re-hired him.) Miles also made the decision to record an album with a large ensemble arranged by Gil Evans, it would be called "Miles Ahead." The albums Miles made with Gil Evans aren't my favorites, but the people who like them really like them, and they are considered the best albums of their kind. Miles was changing things up yet again.

On his 1958 album "Milestones," Miles added alto sax player Cannonball Adderley to the group, and started the path towards modal jazz, which led to "Kind of Blue." I can't claim to totally understand all the differences between modal jazz and non-modal jazz, but I think it boils down to this: in modal jazz, you improvise with or against the scales, not the chords, as in most styles of jazz. In a modal song, you might only have two chords, so you can't improvise with or against the chord changes. This was the opposite of bebop, where the chord changes were everything. It was a totally different way of improvising. (This really sounds like I know what I'm talking about, doesn't it?) Anyway, from what Kahn says in his book, that's how I understand it.

The gold standard for modal jazz was Miles's 1959 album "Kind of Blue." It's regularly cited as the greatest jazz album ever, and even shows up in rock magazine polls of great albums. If you haven't heard it, go out and buy a copy. Right now. When you've finished listening to it, please return to this blog entry and keep reading. I'll wait for you...done? Wow, wasn't it great? Again, Miles put together an amazing band full of musicians who would continue to make great jazz as solo artists. The "Kind of Blue" group was: Miles, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. Wow. Within a year, Cannonball and Coltrane had both formed their own groups, as had Bill Evans. (Evans technically left Miles's group in late 1958, but returned for the "Kind of Blue" recording.)

But rather than keep plowing the modal fields until nothing was left, Miles kept changing his sound. He never made another album that sounded like "Kind of Blue." In 1963, Wynton Kelly left, taking Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb with him to form their own trio. Miles had to form a new band, from the ground up. Eventually, in 1964, the new lineup became Wayne Shorter on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. This group became known as Miles's second "Classic Quintet." Miles's playing became harsher during this period, as some of that ballad softness seemed to slip away. By 1968-69, Miles was experimenting with more open song structures, electric pianos, and grooves influenced by James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. It was the start of fusion, heralded by Miles's albums "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches' Brew." I have to confess, I don't like fusion. I don't really get it. But I can understand that it was an important movement in jazz, and once again, Miles was on the front line, leading the charge.

Miles's music post-1969 doesn't hold a lot of appeal for me, and from what I've read, it doesn't sound like he broke a lot of new ground after fusion. But that really doesn't matter, because in twenty years at the forefront of nearly every major movement in jazz, Miles had broken enough boundaries for many lifetimes. Honestly, most artists, in any genre, don't get to say they started or heavily influenced as many different styles as Miles did.

So those are some of my thoughts on Miles Davis, one of my favorite jazz musicians. I'm just intrigued by the way he kept searching, kept moving. He could have tried to make 10 albums just like "Kind of Blue," but he didn't, which I admire. Miles did not do things the easy way, and he definitely did them his way.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Ford Madox Ford's modernist novel The Good Solider begins with the line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." And so the reader is thrown into a difficult, twisting narrative. Our unreliable narrator is the American expatriate John Dowell. (Extra points if you actually know this, as his name is mentioned only once or twice in the text.) Dowell lives in Europe with his wife, Florence, who has a bad heart, and thus they summer in Nauheim in Germany. It is there that they meet Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora, in the summer of 1904. The Ashburnhams are English; Edward is a member of the landed gentry. Soon Edward and Florence begin an affair, under the nose of the seemingly oblivious John.

The novel is not so much about the story, as it is about storytelling, and the way the story is told. It's very ahead of it's time in that regard, more post-modern than modern. Dowell jumps backwards and forwards in time, few things happen chronologically, and everything is colored by his own scattershot memories. At times he seems to have been aware of the affair from the beginning, at other times he seems blissfully unaware. (Or not so blissfully, as no one is really happy in this novel.) Dowell will lavish praise on Edward, and how he is a good person, and then he will turn around and excoriate him. He says on page 17, "I don't want you to think that I am writing Teddy Ashburnham down a brute. I don't believe he was." On page 31 he says, "Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear there was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier...How could he arouse anything like a sentiment, in anybody?" Dowell clearly has a love/hate relationship with Edward. It's a difficult book to negotiate because of the constantly shifting chronology. It's difficult to tell if Dowell actually knows something, or if he is going back and revising his own memories, to make himself seem less clueless.

There's very little dialogue in The Good Soldier, as most of it is Dowell's recounting of events, which cuts us off from knowing the characters better. It blocks us, which could well be the point, as we only see characters through the eyes of the narrator. We only know what the narrator chooses to tell us. Which is true of every story, no matter how it's told, but it's taken to an extreme here. It's particularly frustrating in regards to Edward, as I still don't have any feeling for who he was. He seems boring to me, dull and ordinary, not the dashing figure that the narrator wants us to believe he was. There must have been something besides his looks that drew Florence in to him, but we don't get to see it.

Dowell also never comes across as American to me. I know that Americans spoke differently in 1915, the year the book came out, than they do now, but Dowell's sentence construction is extremely British. Which fits, of course, because Ford Madox Ford was British. Here's a typical sentence: "But the inconvenient-well, hang it all, I will say it-the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is, that with all the taking for granted, you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued." That just sounds British to me. "Hang it all," "damnable nuisance," those are so British! And the stereotype of Americans, more so in 1915 than now, was that they were brash, loud, more open than the stuffy British. Yet the narrator is none of these things. If anything, he is even MORE stuffy than the British. I think that part of the reason Dowell admires Edward, or professes to, anyway, is because Edward is British, and that makes him different, and therefore interesting. If Dowell were British, he would know within 15 minutes of meeting Edward all about him, exactly where he fit into the class system, what school he went to, and if he made 5,000 pounds a year or 10,000.

As the novel progresses, and the characters move inexorably along on their tragic trajectories, Ford shows us the cracks in the mirror of Edwardian society. No one is really honest with anyone else, and in the end, no one gets what they truly wanted. It is indeed, a sad story.

The Great Minnesota Get-Together!

It's that time of year, as summer begins to turn to autumn, and the kids go back to school, for the Great Minnesota Get-Together. No, I'm not talking about the Republican National Convention. I'm talking about the Minnesota State Fair, which ended it's 12-day run on Labor Day. To those of you who may not be familiar with the Minnesota State Fair, it's one of the largest State Fairs in the country, and usually a subject of immense pride for Minnesotans. According to Wikipedia, that venerated fount of knowledge, it's probably the largest in average daily attendance, as some 1.6 million Minnesotans attended this year's Fair. (Okay, some Wisconsinians and Iowans probably snuck in too.)

The Minnesota State Fair boasts more farm animals than you can shake a stick at, rides for all the kiddies, exhibits of everything from prize-winning honey to crop art, and any kind of fried food you can imagine, usually placed on a stick. (I'm not kidding, there's even deep-fried candy bars on a stick. Ew.) I've been going to the Fair since I was a kid, so it's a tradition that is deeply ingrained in me. I love the Fair. I know, it doesn't change much from year to year. Yes, the corn dogs and pronto pups still taste the same, yes, I've seen all the same Heritage Square buildings for years, but we have to go see them again this year! The Fair does change, it's just very gradual. When I was a kid, there were all kinds of big tractors in the area called "Machinery Hill." And you could actually climb up and sit in them! How cool! Now, there's still "Machinery Hill," but all the big tractors are gone. About the biggest thing you can sit in is a John Deere Gator. Wow. The gradual changing of the Fair is a little bit like life itself. Life usually doesn't change radically, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, not day to day, but year to year.

The Fair is really the last hurrah of summer, before kids have to go back to school, before all the leaves change and winter sets in. Here in Minnesota we have hot, humid summers, and long, cold, snowy winters, and not much inbetween. So you have to make the most of the nice weather. And the weather here is always a topic of conversation. Usually because something weird is happening, like it's snowing in May, or something like that.

The best time to go to the Fair is early in the morning, before the crowds get there. It's quiet, almost peaceful. And then you look out at the streets at about 2PM, and it's just a teeming mass of people. Give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning for fried foods...

This year at the Fair I petted a donkey, saw a 500-pound pumpkin, saw crop art bashing Republicans, ate a corn dog, (they're better than Pronto Pups) drank a milkshake from the dairy building, saw goats chewing on their metal pens, saw the biggest boar in the state, (over 1,000 pounds) saw a breathtaking photo of the 35-W bridge collapse in the Fine Arts building, walked a kajillion miles, cursed huge crowds of slow-moving people with strollers...where else could I do all this? Only at the Fair.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dave Kehr-Great Film Critic

If you like old movies, you need to read Dave Kehr's DVD Review column that appears every Tuesday in The New York Times. Kehr's a very insightful film critic who doesn't try to be arch or funny, he just has a knack for describing films very well. Kehr keeps the focus on the films, not on himself. And Kehr actually likes movies, unlike say, David Denby of The New Yorker, who seems to hate everything he sees. (Carrying on the fine tradition of Pauline Kael, who never met a film she liked.) Well, I do exaggerate, Denby did like Capote. (I almost fell off my chair when I read that review!) Kehr is great on old movies, he wrote a really great column a couple of months ago about a variety of Westerns from the 40's and 50's. It made me want to see all of those movies. His column this week is about a new boxed set of Errol Flynn's Westerns.

Good movie reviews are hard to come by, so check out Dave Kehr's column, and his website at www.davekehr.com

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jimmy Smith, "Bucket!"


Okay, so I have to be honest, I bought jazz organist Jimmy Smith's CD "Bucket!" in large part because of the title and the cover art. As a fan of Blue Note Records' classic jazz albums and classic album cover designs from the 50's and 60's, I knew I had to have this. The title is so ludicrous, who would call an album "Bucket!" and why? And why the exclamation point and quotation marks? (According to the front cover, the title is actually "Bucket"! The CD itself says Bucket! And the CD spine says Bucket. But I prefer "Bucket!") From the front cover, it looks like Jimmy is exuberantly shouting "Bucket!"
Despite the classic cover and title, "Bucket!" is unfortunately not a very memorable album. I'm not the biggest jazz organ fan ever, but I do really like Jimmy Smith's sessions with the guitarist Wes Montgomery. Now there was some smokin' jazz. To give you some background, Jimmy Smith was the man who brought the organ out of church, (and baseball stadiums) and into the jazz mainstream. He's one of the most important innovators on the organ. His Blue Note albums from the late 50's and early 60's made him a star in the jazz world, and his 60's albums for Verve served to solidify his standing. His most famous song is probably "Walk On the Wild Side." (Not to be confused with Lou Reed's song of the same name.)
"Bucket!" was one of Jimmy Smith's last albums for Blue Note, recorded in 1963, but not released until three or four years later. (That's usually never a good sign.) The only other musicians on "Bucket!" are Quentin Warren on guitar, and Donald Bailey on drums. Both were regulars on Smith's Blue Note sessions of the time. Both are good musicians, but the session is more like a slow, steady groove than an explosive display of virtuosity. Warren and Bailey are not Wes Montgomery and Art Blakey, to name two more propulsive talents on their instruments. Warren isn't given very much room to solo, and Smith's solos are more restrained and laid-back than usual. The song choice is also kind of odd, as Smith leads the group through the old, old songs "Careless Love," and "John Brown's Body." I'm not kidding, a jazz organ version of "John Brown's Body." Smith's solos don't stray too far from the melodies, which gives the feeling that he's playing it safe for some reason. Anyway, it's a good, solid Blue Note session, it makes for enjoyable listening, and worth recommending for serious Jimmy Smith fans, but it's nothing extraordinary.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock, "1974"

Alright, so it's back to music, as I realize I haven't done a music-related post in a long time. Robyn Hitchcock's song "1974" leads off the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme's concert film, "Storefront Hitchcock." (If you haven't seen it, it's great, go out and watch it.) "1974" is on the soundtrack CD, and a different version appears on Robyn's 2000 CD, "A Star For Bram." The soundtrack version is Robyn solo on acoustic guitar (with a soft electric guitar in the background), and the "A Star for Bram" version is a full band version. I much prefer the simplicity of the soundtrack version. Spare, solo settings make you pay attention to Robyn's brilliant, odd lyrics. Sometimes a full band just obscures his lyrics.

"1974," as you might have guessed, is about Robyn's general observations about the year in question. I read somewhere that Robyn said that 1974 was just a crappy year, which I couldn't tell immediately from the song, but if we look deeper, there are some clues. The song starts off with a great first line, "You have two coffees, one of them is one coffee too many for you." I like the little wordplay, "one coffee too," which also sounds like "one coffee two." The time seems to be the present, as the person with two coffees is "trying to lead a middle-aged life." But "it feels like 1974, waiting for the waves to come and crash on the shore. But you're far in land." This sounds to me like a clue to Robyn's state of mind, as he is waiting for something to happen, anything to break the tedium of 1974.

One of the events of 1974 that Robyn mentions is "Syd Barrett's last session, he can't sing anymore, he's gonna have to be Roger now, for the rest of his life." The reference is of course to the band Pink Floyd, and it's founding member, Syd Barrett, a huge influence on Robyn's music. The story goes that Barrett, who had not been a member of the band for some years, showed up at Abbey Road, and witnessed the recording of the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which was, ironically enough, written about Barrett. None of the other band members recognized Barrett at first, as he had shaved off all his hair and become a recluse, and was undergoing severe mental health issues. Needless to say, it was an emotional moment for the band. The lyric, "He's gonna have to be Roger now," I take to mean that Syd will have to live vicariously through Roger Waters, who had taken leadership of the band after Barrett left.

Another reference to the music of the times comes up when Robyn sings, "Rebel rebel was your favorite song," a reference to David Bowie's hit single. Any reference to David Bowie wins points with me, and one of the best things about 1974 was David Bowie's brilliant glam album "Diamond Dogs," the album "Rebel Rebel" appears on. (Bowie fact: David played lead guitar on the "Diamond Dogs" album.)

Robyn then mentions the political events of the year, "And as Nixon left the White House, you could hear people say, 'They'll never rehabilitate that mother, no way.'" This is obviously meant as an ironic comment, because Nixon was rehabilitated, unfortunately. It just goes to show you, if you live long enough, (and get a Presidential pardon) people forget about the bad things you've done. Well, not entirely, of course. But Bill Clinton invited Nixon to the White House for advice! The next lyric is, "Whirry-whirry goes the helicopter, out of my way, I've got a President to dump in the void." In my mind, I always want to change it to, "I've got a President to dump in the bay," because I dislike Richard Nixon, and also because it rhymes.

In the last verse, Robyn sings, "And you say that's where it ended, but I say no, no, no, it just faded away. August was grey, it feels like 1974." There's a naked, highly emotional quality to this lyric when Robyn sings it solo, it almost give me shivers, that is missing in the full band version. The full band version is also marred by dopey and distracting backing vocals, and what sounds like a cowbell. The cowbell is an odd choice, and it would seem to undercut the message of Robyn's song, which is that 1974 sucked. And if 1974 sucked, I don't think the song is supposed to sound like 1974! (Unless the cowbell was meant ironically.)

"1974" is a great Robyn Hitchcock song, and shows his gifts as a songwriter. It has a catchy melody, with lots of twists and turns, and lyrics that are not always easily decipherable, but are full of vivid images that stay with you long after the song has faded away.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Twins at Mid-Season

Okay, so the All-Star game was a week and a half ago, and the halfway mark of the season was even before that, so I'm a little late. But going into today's games, the Minnesota Twins are in second place in the AL Central, which I don't think anyone expected. The Cleveland Indians, who many people picked to win the division, are cellar dwellers, and totally out of the race. I was just hoping for the Twins to be a .500 team this year, I really wasn't expecting anything more, especially with the departure of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter.

The Twins' young pitchers have stepped up and delivered so far, well, with the exception of Boof Bonser. Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey have all pitched effectively. They were all big question marks going into this season, as no one really knew how they would fare. And the Twins pick up of Livan Hernandez proved to be a good move, even though he's had some rough starts lately. They really needed a veteran arm to eat up some innings, and Hernandez has done the job. The biggest disappointment with the pitching staff is that Francisco Liriano's return from Tommy John surgery has been, well, disastrous. He's pitched just 10 innings, and has an ERA of 11.32. Hopefully more time in the minors will see him return to his 2006 form. The bullpen, as usual, has been rock solid, with Joe Nathan kicking some butt with an ERA of just 1.08! The Twins have had some good closers, like Jeff Reardon and Rick Aguilera, but I think Nathan might be the best ever.

The hitting has been solid. Justin Morneau is putting up decent numbers, though nothing like the gaudy stats he had halfway through 2007. Joe Mauer is having a good year, and he's finally hitting some home runs after a serious first-half slump. Carlos Gomez and Alexi Casilla have been great at getting on base any way they can, bunt, infield single, reached on an error, whatever. They've been fun to watch. Jason Kubel has done a good job of making up for the loss of Michael Cuddyer to injuries. Cuddyer had a breakout year in 2006, and a decent year in 2007, but he's been on the DL twice this year, and he hasn't shown the power he had in 2006. Mike Redmond, my favorite backup catcher of all time, celebrated his 10th year in the major leagues in May. He's never been sent down to the minors, which is extremely rare for a backup catcher! He's been effective off the bench as usual, batting .284 in very limited playing time.

It's been disappointing that the Twins haven't been able to knock the White Sox out of first place. We're so close! And then we play the Yankees at Yankee Stadium...and get swept. Oh, and speaking of historic Yankee Stadium, how about Morneau winning the home run derby and scoring the winning run in the All-Star game. Nice work, Justin.

In first-half baseball milestone news, Ken Griffey finally slugged his 600th home run, and put his long-time fans out of their misery of counting this down. I was so glad to see someone who has never been on steroids get to 600! If he hadn't been injured like a kajillion times since 2001, he would have hit number 600 about four years ago! I'm just happy he's past 600, now I just want him to pass Sammy Sosa, at 609! And Randy Johnson continues the long march towards 300 wins, right now he's at 291. Not likely he'll make it this year, but I would think he'd come back next year to get it. My off-the-wall pick for a pitcher to get to 300 wins is Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old veteran now with the Phillies. Hey, it's possible! He won 14 games last year, and he's currently at 239 wins. That's more than Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale. All Moyer has to do is keep winning 10 games a year, and keep pitching until he's 50. It's totally doable. Yeah, I'm not holding my breath for that.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Gov. Tim and the Veepstakes

It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, but the big news here in Minnesota is that our Governor, Tim Pawlenty, may be John McCain's pick for VP. It's all part of McCain's "Pay Attention to Me while Obama's out doing Cool Stuff in other Countries!" strategy. And, boy, is it working! Um, right... But I think the real reason that McCain is staying in the US right now is that the countries he wants to visit don't actually exist anymore. His travel coordinator is having the toughest time finding out when Archduke Franz Ferdinand is available for a sit-down about the hard issues facing the Austro-Hungarian Empire! And I won't even talk about trying to reach the Holy Roman Empire, or Bohemia, or Gaul. (And I've heard that McCain is very worried about possible attacks from the Visigoths while he's in Rome.) I haven't even heard about Obama's position on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I think it's non-existent. (Much like said empire.) Okay, so John McCain is old and easily confused. He doesn't know how to use the Internets, so he can't just hop on The Google and check if, say, Czechoslovakia still exists or not. (Here's a hint-it doesn't!) And he's not really up on his geography, either. (Iraq does not border Pakistan. Sorry John!) Someone should really do him a favor and buy him a friggin' atlas from, oh, I don't know, maybe this century?

Anyway, back to Governor Tim. There's been lots of buzz about Governor Tim as McCain's running mate, and it's been going on for a while now. One of the local news stations had a very funny montage of Pawlenty at a news conference today saying about a dozen times that he's "no longer engaging in discussion or speculation" about the VP slot. Which just proves that obviously someone thinks he's VP material. Governor Tim has also been a national co-chair of McCain's campaign since January of 2007, at which point no one thought the Straight Talk Express had any gas left in the tank. So his loyalty may be rewarded. And Governor Tim would actually be a good choice for McCain. McCain needs pick someone younger, obviously. Of course, everybody is younger than John McCain, so that's not hard. Unless he picked Bob Dole. Which would make a great road movie. I can see the slogan now, "Grumpier Old Men 2008!"

Okay, so back to Governor Tim. Pawlenty is noticeably younger than McCain, which is good, although the flip side of that is that then McCain just looks, well, older. And there's not much you can do about that. Governor Tim has executive experience, he's from a totally different region, he's from a swing state that the GOP would love to win, and the state he governs just happens to be holding the GOP convention. And despite the fact that I disagree with Governor Tim on just about every policy issue, I can't help but like the guy a little bit. He seems very down to earth, and he really seems like a nice guy. (A nice Republican??? Isn't that an oxymoron?)

And Minnesota, despite it's reputation as a very liberal state, is actually kind of purplish. We have a very liberal Senator, Amy Klobuchar, and a very conservative Senator, Norm Coleman. We have narrowly elected Governor Tim to 2 terms, and we haven't elected a Democratic governor since 1986. So I think that the Republicans think that Minnesota could be up for grabs if Pawlenty is the VP. Minnesota has not voted for a Republican for President since Richard Nixon in 1972, but the 2000 and 2004 elections were fairly narrow Democratic victories.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. If Governor Tim is chosen, he'll break with the tradition of Minnesota producing only Democratic VP's-Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. Hubert and Paul Wellstone are buried in the same cemetery, which is very fitting. Every day on my way to work I drive by their graves and think about what might have been. If Hubert would have beaten Nixon in 1968, this country would be a much different place. God, if any Democrat had won in 1968, Hubert, Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy, the country would be a much different, and better, place.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Theatre de la Jeune Lune-an Appreciation

Last weekend was a very sad one for the Twin Cities. It was announced that Theatre de la Jeune Lune is closing on July 31st. Jeune Lune started in 1978, and for thirty years they have been an innovative and essential part of the Twin Cities landscape. For a longtime Jeune Lune fan like myself, it was heartbreaking to hear this news. However, I should add that it wasn't totally unexpected. Honestly, their last few shows haven't risen to the high standard Jeune Lune has set for itself. It came out last fall that the company was staggering under the weight of $1 million in debt. It's a sad end for an amazing group of artists, who won the regional Tony award in 2005.

I've seen about 45 Jeune Lune shows since 1992, when my Mother took me to see "Scapin," a commedia dell'arte play by Moliere. I was 11 then, and I've grown up watching this wonderful theater group. Jeune Lune was started by Dominique Serrand, Robert Rosen, Barbra Berlovitz, and Vincent Gracieux. In a unique structure, these four actors were co-artistic directors. Steven Epp joined the company in the mid-80's, and became the fifth artistic director. This core group of five actors are some of the most talented I've ever seen. They all brought something a little different to the mix, and they could all move from physical comedy to heartbreaking drama at the drop of a hat.

But a Jeune Lune production meant more than just great acting. It meant a totally different theater experience, from the building itself to the beautifully detailed costumes. In 1992, they moved into the old Allied Van Lines building in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis. In it, they created a unique and versatile performance space. The stage and seats could be in any number of different arrangements, and they were hardly ever in the same place twice. The space allowed actors to appear at different heights, by climbing ladders to different levels of the warehouse. It's difficult to describe, but it is such a dramatic performance space, and the stage almost becomes a character in and of itself. The company almost always created fresh interpretations of their source material. When a play was based on a novel, it was always adapted by the company. Even when they were performing a play by, say, Moliere, they would search for the translation that best suited their idea of the material. And even then, they still might change it further. But their changing and adapting never took the material away from the author's original intent, they just shed more light on the brilliance originally within the material.

Some of my favorite memories from the years at Jeune Lune are:

their production of Zola's novel "Germinal," with a powerful lead performance from Steven Epp.

"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," with Dominique as Quasimodo and Vincent as Dom Frollo.

The glorious lunacy of "Yang Zen Froggs," which showcased Jeune Lune's physical comedy at it's best.

"Honeymoon China," more general craziness, with Dominique as "Umlaut." My Mom and I still quote Dominique's line, "Oh-oh, another day, another dust bunny."

"The Pursuit of Happiness: Cinemamerica and Lifeliberty," written by the company, an epic and fascinating look at life in America, this is one of the best plays I've ever seen, anywhere. Of all the Jeune Lune plays I've seen, this one might be my favorite.

"The Dreams, Delusions, and Nightmares of Queen Elizabeth II," was one of Barbra Berlovitz's greatest performances, which is really saying something, as she's great in everything I've ever seen her in.

"Red Harvest," an adaptation of the crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, this featured my favorite Robert Rosen performance. This was the moment that for me, he transformed from a funny guy into a leading man.

"Twelfth Night," even better than the Guthrie's own production, which was a couple of years after this, I believe. Great acting by Joel Spence and Sarah Agnew as the leads.

"Tartuffe," Jeune Lune has done this several times over the years, and Steven Epp's masterful performance in the lead role was breathtaking. A brilliant study of hypocrisy and evil masquerading as piousness. Vincent was especially good as Aragon, the head of the household who falls under Tartuffe's spell.

"Cyrano," a heartbreakingly beautiful version of this tale. I will always remember the moment where Roxanne, played by Sarah Agnew, finally realizes after all these years that it was Cyrano, played by Dominique, who truly loved her. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.

There are still so many more, like "The Magic Flute," as Jeune Lune moved into it's "opera period," highlighted by the beautiful appearances and singing voices of Bradley Greenwald, and the Baldwin sisters, Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin.

"Carmen" was probably my favorite opera. It was done simply, with a piano providing the only accompaniment for those gorgeous voices. Bradley Greenwald as the doomed Don Jose, Christina Baldwin as the title temptress, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Michela.

And even at the end of this list, there are more productions I could mention, more brilliant, complex portrayals of humans at their best and worst. Through the years, Jeune Lune brought the Twin Cities brilliant, challenging theater. Even as a long-time fan, I can't say that I understood everything in every play, that I could tell you what it all meant. I'm just glad I was there to see the magic happen. Dominique, Vincent, Steven, Barbra, and Robert, and all the wonderful actors and artists you worked with over the years, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your artistic journey. Thank you for all you've given us.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Meeting Mikhail

On Friday night, I got to meet Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest dancers ever. How exactly did I meet him, you might ask? Well, the Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis is showing an exhibition of photographs that Baryshnikov took of Merce Cunningham's dance company. Friday night was the opening, and Mikhail was there! Since the Weinstein Gallery is just blocks from where I live, I figured I'd head over to the gallery. I saw Baryshnikov dance a few years ago, and it was simply amazing. I can't say I'm an expert on dance, not by a long shot, but I do enjoy watching it.

The Weinstein Gallery is tiny, just two large rooms, and the window air conditioners were ineffective. The rooms were crowded with people trying to get a glimpse of Mikhail. He was dressed coolly, in a white shirt and black trousers, and I was surprised at how tiny he is. He can't be more than 5'6" or 5'7", and his frame is just so small, petite, even. He still has a thick head of hair, dark brown flecked with gray, and his blue eyes are piercing. Needless to say, at 60, he's still incredibly handsome. (Surprise, surprise!) And he's an incredibly nice person, posing for photographs with people, signing autographs, chatting with them. I got to shake his hand, and told him how much I enjoyed seeing him dance. Then I said, "It's nice to meet you." He replied, "It's nice to meet you too!" What a cool guy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Readings on Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, by Robert S. Mattison, 2003.

Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, by Calvin Tomkins, updated edition, 2005.
Obviously, Robert Rauschenberg's life and artwork cannot be summed up by me in one blog post. There are many avenues of his work I didn't even touch on, such as his performance art pieces, and his work as set designer for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. There are several books I would recommend for further investigation about this wonderful and fascinating artist.

Calvin Tomkins's Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, is a great book that covers Rauschenberg's life and career up to the mid-60's. (Merce Cunningham comes of as a major jerk in this book, he seems petty and annoyed when Rauschenberg become successful.) Originally published in 1981, it was updated in 2005 with a chapter Tomkins wrote for a New Yorker article.

Leo Steinberg's Encounters with Rauschenberg is a good little book, showing how one wary art critic (Steinberg) eventually became a fervent supporter of Rauschenberg's work.

Robert Rauschenberg: Breaking Boundaries, by Robert S. Mattison, is a good, well-illustrated book. I haven't read the entire book, but it's good.

Robert Rauschenberg: October Files, edited by Brandon Joseph, is a good compendium of important articles about Rauschenberg's work.

Robert Rauschenberg, by Sam Hunter, though unimaginatively titled, is a solid work featuring reproductions of more than 100 Rauschenberg works. It includes many later works, although Hunter, like most other authors, concentrates in the text on the 1950's and 60's. Hopefully soon someone will write more about Rauschenberg's post-1964 work.

Rauschenberg is also sadly lacking in entry-level, ie, cheap, art books about him. For some reason, he was not included in the Abbeville Modern Masters series, although they did include Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. It's like, okay, there's someone missing among this group of artists...he has also never had a Taschen book written about him. Taschen has a great series of cheap books about the canonical "great artists," and they are a good introduction and overview of an artist's life and work. There are books covering just about every major painter, ever, from Leonardo, Caravaggio, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns. Guess who still doesn't have a Taschen book? Robert Rauschenberg. Anyway, if I whetted your appetite for more Rauschenberg, check out some of these books. If you're interested in more images of Rauschenberg's work, check out the Sam Hunter book, if you're interested in more about his life, check out the Calvin Tomkins book.

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008.

Robert Rauschenberg at work, circa 1963.

Retroactive I, by Robert Rauschenberg, 1963.

Trophy II (For Teeny and Marcel Duchamp), by Robert Rauschenberg, 1960.
The American artist Robert Rauschenberg died in May at the age of 82. He was one of the 20th century's greatest artists, and one of my own favorite artists. He was brilliant in many different mediums, and consistently prolific. His friend Jasper Johns said once that Rauschenberg was the artist "who had created the most in this century, except for Picasso."

Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and had no idea becoming an artist was a career possibility until about the age of 20, when he visited the Henry E. Huntington Library, in San Marino, CA. There he saw Thomas Gainsborough's famous painting, The Blue Boy. "This was my first encounter with art as art," he said. When he understood that "somebody actually MADE those paintings, it was the first time I realized you could be an artist." He studied at the renowned Black Mountain College under Josef Albers in the late 1940's. One can scarcely imagine two artists more different in approach than Albers and Rauschenberg. Albers's most famous works come from a series of more than 1,000 works called Homage to the Square, which are rigidly geometric works, most with the same basic pattern. In contrast, Rauschenberg's work always looked thrown together, he always let the outside world into his works, and he engaged with the outside world in a way that was scorned by many serious art critics at the time. Although the two men did not get along, Rauschenberg respected Albers, saying of him, "Albers was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person. He wasn't easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it. Years later, though, I'm still learning what he taught me, because what he taught me had to do with the entire visual world. He didn't teach you how to 'do art.' The focus was always on your personal sense of looking. I consider Albers the most important teacher I've ever had, and I'm sure he considers me one of his poorest students."

Some of Rauschenberg's earliest important works would set the tone for Minimalism, a movement that was still a decade off, and in a way, became the first and last words on the subject. He created a series of all-white canvases in the early 1950's, and also painted a series of all-black canvases around the same time. What could possibly be more minimal than that? These works also had a great influence on the composer John Cage, and his famous piece 4'33", which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Or so it seems. What actually happens during the silence is that the audience becomes aware of all the other noise around them, as nothing is ever totally silent. A similar thing happens with Rauschenberg's white paintings. You can see reflections of what's happening in the gallery on the all-white canvas. In this way, the painting becomes a reflection of the outside world, just as Cage's piece, which is ostensibly silent, becomes a reflection of the concert hall.

But Rauschenberg's restless nature would not let him stay in Minimalism very long. By the mid-fifties, he was creating challenging new works that were a hybrid of sculpture and painting. Rauschenberg's term for them was combines, because they combined the two art forms. A typical combine work would feature all kinds of different colored paint, along with artifacts from the outside world, such as neckties, a stuffed rooster, a bedspread, and, most famously, a stuffed goat. The combines are difficult to interpret, but they show an artist willing to engage the outside world in a conversation. In his 1955 work Bed, Rauschenberg took his pillow and blanket, attached them to a canvas, and slathered them with different colors of paint. Similar to Jasper Johns's work of the same period, Rauschenberg was littering his work with man-made objects, like Coca-Cola bottles, thus paving the way for Pop Art.

It was around this time, the mid-fifties, that Jasper Johns entered Rauschenberg's orbit. There was an instant connection, and soon the two lovers were sharing an apartment. They would discuss art endlessly, and their influence on one another's work was of lasting importance. By the time they broke up in 1961, both artists were at a creative peak. Johns's career was taking off, as MOMA had bought three works from his 1958 solo exhibition, and Rauschenberg was building momentum.

Rauschenberg's work underwent another huge change when he discovered silkscreens around 1961. Now, in addition to his combines, he was creating canvases with silkscreened images of stop signs, bald eagles, JFK, and glasses of water, all held together by expressionistic brush strokes. Because of the silkscreened images, these pictures were somewhat similar to those being done by Andy Warhol at the same time. Indeed, Warhol may have been the person who introduced Rauschenberg to silkscreening. But, instead of focusing on rows and rows of the same image, as Warhol often did, Rauschenberg's canvases were jammed, almost overloaded, with visual information. Rauschenberg's work, largely critically derided until this time, was now being re-evaluated. He had a major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1963, which raised his stock considerably. But the biggest honor was yet to come. In 1964, he won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, becoming just the third American artist to ever do so. The art establishment was finally taking notice of this striking artist. So what did Rauschenberg do? From Europe, he called a friend in New York, and told him to go to his studio and destroy all of his silkscreens. He would never work with that set of images again. Now that success had finally beckoned, Rauschenberg firmly broke with the past, partly for fear of repeating himself and becoming stale. As he said in an interview from 2000, "I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time I am bored or understand-I use those words interchangeably-another appetite has formed."

His work continued to change and grow throughout the rest of his long career. In 1984, he formed the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, or ROCI for short. The aim was to travel to other countries, and exchange art and ideas, in the hope of promoting "world peace and understanding." To the end, he kept right on creating and transforming, always seeking some new idea. He was once asked what his greatest fear was. He said, "That I might run out of world." Thankfully, he never did.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

RIP, Tim Russert

Like everyone, I was sadly shocked to hear that Tim Russert died yesterday. For a political junkie like me, it was a bad day. He will be sadly missed on Election Night in November. Who will be there with a dry-erase board working out Electoral College possibilities? I know John King at CNN has that super high-tech touch-screen thing, but it's just not the same. Seriously, though, Tim Russert will be missed for the dedication and intelligence he brought to his job. Clearly, he loved what he was doing, and it showed. And he asked good questions, not crap questions like, "Where's your flag pin?" or, "How much do you think Reverend Wright loves America? Does he love it more than he loves his dog?" Okay, so a viewer/voter asked the flag pin question, thus further eroding my faith in democracy. Russert seemed like a really nice guy who just happened to host the most important political talk show on TV. On NBC's nightly news last night, Brian Williams talked to two colleagues who had both asked Russert to be the godfather to their sons. I think that says a lot about the kind of guy Tim Russert was, on and off-screen. He will be missed.

I'm Back!

Greetings, dear readers! I apologize for my absence, but I was having computer issues. Yeah, it was not a lot of fun. But now I am back on the Internets, as our President would say. (It's a good thing there's more than one, it could get crowded out there!) Anyway, now I will get back to the business of posting, and by business I mean "thing I do in my spare time that I don't get paid for." Just to be clear.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ben-Hur and Gore Vidal

With the recent passing of Charlton Heston, Hollywood has lost yet another of it's larger-than-life screen stars. Kirk Douglas is really the last big star left who came to prominence in the 1940's and early 50's. Heston was never my favorite actor, and I disagree with everything he came to stand for later in his life. Although Heston actually started out as a Democrat, and was a very vocal supporter of civil rights. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, along with Burt Lancaster and Harry Belafonte, when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. When one of his films premiered at a segregated theater in Oklahoma, Heston picketed the theater. It's really too bad he became so conservative. Had he turned Republican about 10 or 15 years before he actually did, he might well have been President. Think how popular Ronald Reagan was as President, then imagine if Heston, who was actually an A-list Hollywood star, had run for President! I mean, he played Moses, for God's sake! Ben-Hur! Michelangelo! Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape! Soylent green is people! President Heston in a landslide!

Anyway, this got me thinking about my favorite Charlton Heston story, about Gore Vidal and the gay subtext of Ben-Hur. Gore Vidal wrote most of the screenplay for Ben-Hur, although he went uncredited at the time. Working with director William Wyler, Vidal needed to come up with a reason for the rivalry between Heston's Ben-Hur and Stephen Boyd's Messala. So Gore decided that Ben-Hur and Messala had been lovers, and Messala wanted the relationship to continue, and Ben-Hur did not. Wyler didn't think it would fly, telling Vidal, "Gore, this is Ben-Hur. Ben-Hur! 'A tale of the Christ' or whatever that subtitle is. You can't do this with Ben-Hur..." Vidal convinced Wyler that none of the dialogue would hint at any kind of sexual relationship, and that it would all be shown by the expressions on the actor's faces. Wyler said to Vidal, "I'll talk to Chuck. You talk to Boyd. But don't you say a word to Chuck or he'll fall apart." According to Vidal, Heston was oblivious to the subtext, but Boyd got it and played the scene the way Vidal intended. After the scene was rehearsed, Vidal said to Wyler, "Chuck hasn't got much charm, has he?" Wyler replied, "No, and you can direct your ass off and he still won't have any."

The above quotations are taken from Gore Vidal's memoir, Palimpsest, which also features a great picture of Heston and Vidal on the set; Heston is grinning and has his hand on Vidal's shoulder.