Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Music, Please, it's Nick Lowe's 60th Birthday!

Today is Nick Lowe's 60th birthday. I've been listening to "Quiet, Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe" the last few days, and Nick's songs have been playing on an endless loop in my head. (Which is not a bad thing, mind you.) The more I listen to Nick, the more I like him. What "Quiet Please" really shows is that he has been writing brilliant songs throughout his entire career. I'm amazed at the consistency of his writing, even though the songs sound very different from each other. From the snarky early brilliance of "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?" "Heart of the City," "Marie Provost," "Cruel To Be Kind," to mature, starkly powerful songs like "The Beast In Me," "What's Shakin' on the Hill," "Soulful Wind," "Indian Queens," and "People Change," Lowe's music has changed over the years, but the quality has not. (A note: "What's so Funny" was meant to be snarky when Nick first wrote it in 1974, but that's not the way he sings it now, as it obviously has more meaning for him as he's grown older.) Lowe's recent songs amaze me because of how tersely perfect they are. Take the beginning of "People Change," for example. "Storybook love, made for one another, now she treats you just like a brother." Boom, 14 words and we already have a whole story right here! The chorus is direct and to the point, "People change, that's the long and short of it, prepare yourself for it, or get bit, people change." Perfect, and very true. In Lowe's songs now, everything seems honed down to it's perfect essence, everything superfluous has been thrown away. I think it's difficult to write songs this way, although Nick sure makes it look easy.

"Quiet Please" includes only songs that Nick wrote, which is fine with me, because I think he's extremely underrated, and he's an absolutely amazing songwriter. By focusing only on original songs, it puts the spotlight firmly on Nick's ability to craft beautiful, memorable pop songs, and it shows that he's in a class of his own.

Nick, if you're reading this somewhere, (I doubt you are, but you never know) thanks so much for all the great music you've made over the years, and here's to many more songs to come! Discovering your music has been a great joy for me these last two years, thank you!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Liberace and Elvis: The Triumph of Kitsch

After my recent trip to Las Vegas, and a stop at the Liberace Museum, I started to ponder the odd similarities between "Mr. Showmanship" and "The King of Rock and Roll." Maybe it was the hot Vegas sun beating down on my forehead, maybe it was the glare from all the rhinestones, but it seemed to click in my head, Elvis and Liberace, two pillars of 20th-century kitsch, more alike than you might think at first glance.

When I say that Elvis was like Liberace, I'm thinking more of 70's Elvis, in Vegas, with the ostentatious outfits. But there were some similarities in their public personas dating back to the 1950's. Liberace became a star in the early 1950's in large part due to his TV show, which featured his colorful wardrobe, (this was before he was all about the rhinestones, and this was also a time when it was a big deal that Liberace wore a white tuxedo for a performance!) his brother George, and his mother, who was in the audience for almost every show. Liberace was a very shrewd performer, and he had discovered that he could win over audiences with his personality as much as his brilliant piano playing. He was able to take what might have been a shortcoming, his very swishy manner, and turn it into a huge asset. Considering how homophobic 1950's America was, this was no small victory for a gay man. This was, after all, a time when gays could be fired by the US State Department for being a "security risk." (Okay, so Liberace never publicly admitted he was gay, in fact, he even denied it under oath, but I'm pretty sure he was.) In this way, Liberace was actually quite subversive for the time. He was pointedly different, at a time when conformity was what people strove for. But what Liberace did was to temper this subversiveness with more "normal" behavior, like his emphasis on his family, brother George and his mother. And Liberace's personality was so sunny and warm that viewers couldn't help but be charmed by him. He was humble, gracious, and polite, and in this way showed that he was not a threat to the status quo, despite his differences.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national spotlight in 1956, and he seemed quite different and threatening to many people. Like Liberace, he was able to use television to greatly further his career and expand his appeal. And also like Liberace, Elvis was able to use TV to show people that he was not actually threatening, and that he was also humble, gracious, and polite. Eventually, as people began to know more about Elvis's personality, he seemed less threatening, despite his obvious differences. (Like Liberace, Elvis was also totally devoted to his mother. Some people conjecture that Elvis never really got over the death of his mother in 1958.) By entering the Army in 1958, and serving his 2 years like any other normal guy, Elvis again showed his essentially conservative, non-threatening persona.

There aren't many similarities between Liberace and Elvis in the 1960's. Liberace went through a brief period where he tried to tone down his costumes and his flamboyance, but the public wasn't interested. They wanted him to be his glittery self, and so he went back to the rhinestones, and his costumes started to get more outrageous. Elvis spent most of the 1960's proving that not only was he not threatening to the youth of America anymore, he was also in danger of becoming terminally boring. He shuffled his way through some incredibly crappy movies, didn't give any concerts, and recorded some really great songs that got buried on the second side of his soundtrack albums. (His gorgeous cover of Bob Dylan's "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" could be found on Side Two of the "Spinout" soundtrack. Really.) Amazingly, Elvis was able to reclaim his career and prove that he might still actually be a little dangerous in his 1968 TV special, "Elvis." (Now referred to as the "Comeback Special.") The following year he returned to live performing in Las Vegas. And that's when the similarities begin again.

By the 1970's, Liberace was now wearing tons of sequins, rhinestones, rings, everything sparkly that you could think of. Every new costume and stage entrance had to top the last one in fabulousness. He started being driven onto the stage in a Rolls-Royce! He started performing in bejeweled shorts. And Elvis was right there with him. In 1969, Elvis had been wearing tasteful jumpsuits on stage with very little accessories. But as the 70's crept on, the jumpsuits got a little more jeweled, and then a lot more jeweled, until he was seriously rivaling Liberace. That's been a mystery to me, why did Elvis suddenly turn into Liberace in about 1971? I don't get it. Elvis started entering his concerts to the sounds of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," by Richard Strauss. Where his style of singing before had been nuanced and often understated, now it became bombastic and overly emotional. (Just compare the 1956 version of "Love Me Tender" to how he sang it in the 1970's.) In fact, Elvis and Liberace's performing styles became very similar during this time. Both were highly emotional, sentimental, schmaltzy, florid, and over the top. The difference is that Liberace had always been this way, but it was only in the 1970's that Elvis's style changed. (They really should have recorded an album together in the 70's.)

Both Liberace and Elvis had amazingly ornate homes, furnished in the most garish way imaginable. Their plush lifestyles became a part of their public personas. How did they get away with such conspicuous consumption? By asserting their humble origins. As Liberace said, "Don't be misled by this flamboyant exterior. Underneath I remain the same simple boy from Milwaukee." And Elvis probably would have said the same thing, substituting Memphis for Milwaukee. Whether or not this was true of both men is not the point, the point is that people seemed to believe it. A difference between the two men is that while Elvis shut himself away behind the gates of Graceland, Liberace opened up his home for tours! (He had to stop doing this because his neighbors complained about all the traffic!)

As the 70's wore on, Elvis sadly became addicted to numerous prescription drugs, his weight ballooned, and his performances severely suffered. He had become a parody of himself. Elvis had become the Liberace of rock and roll. And I don't mean that as a compliment. The tragedy is that while Liberace knew he was creating an image, a persona for the audience, a caricature, if you will, Elvis never seemed to know how low he had sunk. In some of his last performances, Elvis, the man who had changed rock forever, was reduced to reading the lyrics to "My Way" from a sheet of paper. It was a sad decline for a man who had so much talent.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Best Oscars Ever?

Okay, I know the Oscars were a week ago, but the Oscars show was so great! I think Hugh Jackman should host every year! It was nice to have someone who isn't a comedian host. The presenters did a good job, especially Tina Fey and Steve Martin. (Seeing Tina Fey look so gorgeous in her dress just increased my crush on her...) And I liked how the awards were given a storyline, that was smart. I liked having all the nominees sitting close to the stage, that way you couldn't tell who was going to lose because they were sitting in the middle of an row halfway back. My only gripe was...where the hell was Patrick McGoohan during the Dead People Montage??? He died the same day as Ricardo Montalban, who was in the montage, so I know it wasn't too late to add Patrick to the montage. So why wasn't he there? Yeah, he was more known for TV than movies, but the same can be said of Ricardo. And this isn't the first snub of McGoohan, either. Entertainment Weekly failed to mention his passing as well. What gives??? Well, my blog mentioned Patrick McGoohan's passing, so I'm giving myself a pat on the back for that. It's disappointing to see someone as important as McGoohan overlooked by the Oscars and a really great, intelligent magazine. He deserved better treatment.

Revolutionary Road

I just saw "Revolutionary Road" on Friday night at the Riverview Theater. (Awesome old discount movie theater in Minneapolis.) It was just heartbreakingly beautiful. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are both outstanding in it. Leo really got screwed by not getting nominated for an Oscar for his role. Of course, Kate should have been nominated too, but the Oscar rules are such that you can only be nominated once in any category. Michael Shannon, nominated for Supporting Actor, is good, but his part is just so showy. Shannon thankfully doesn't overplay it, but it puzzles me that the Academy could nominate him and overlook Leo.

"Revolutionary Road" follows Frank and April Wheeler as they try to rescue their marriage from the morass it's in at the beginning of the movie. We see a brief scene of their courtship, and then we are thrown into an intense argument they have following April's acting at the community theater. It's obvious that Frank and April know which buttons to push with each other. The following Monday, Frank turns 30 and seduces one of the secretaries at his office. (Leo still looks too young to be turning 30, even though he's 34.) The secretary isn't prettier than April, or more flirtatious, or anything, she's just there. As he leaves her apartment, Frank says, "Listen: you were swell. Take care, now." Ouch! When he gets home, Frank finds that April has baked a birthday cake for him, and their two children serenade him with "Happy Birthday." Frank feels like a heel, as he should, and after dinner April suggests to him that they move to Paris so Frank can "find himself." They start planning the move. Inevitably, complications occur. And I'll leave the plot summary there. Oh, one more thing, this movie shows why you should NEVER let someone else drive your spouse home! I've read enough John Updike and John Cheever short stories to know that nothing good will come of it.

Anyway, go see "Revolutionary Road," revel in the beautiful period detail, and the gorgeous shots of DiCaprio standing in Grand Central Station surrounded by men dressed exactly alike, and then go read the novel by Richard Yates. (I haven't read the book yet, it's next on my list.)