Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Concert Review: Chris Isaak at the State Theatre

Chris Isaak, 2012. Photo from Cincinnati Enquirer.

Last night I saw Chris Isaak and his band at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. It’s the third time I’ve seen Isaak live. I previously saw him at Mystic Lake in 2009 and at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in 2010. The only reason I missed Isaak in 2011 is that his Twin Cities tour date fell on the day of my wedding. I felt that my nuptials were just slightly more important to attend. Isaak always puts on a great show. It’s easy to see that he loves performing and he’s a natural front man with his matinee-idol good looks and his wicked sense of humor. Not to mention his amazing voice. Isaak looks and sounds amazing; it’s tough to believe that he’s 56. Isaak is always entertaining, whether he’s pogoing across the stage on one foot while playing guitar or telling jokes to the audience. 

Isaak’s band is fantastic, and you can tell they have a great rapport with Chris. Kenney Dale Johnson on drums and Rowland “Roly” Salley on bass have been with Isaak since he first started recording in the mid-1980’s. Isaak even let Salley sing a solo song, “Killing the Blues,” which Salley wrote and which was memorably covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their terrific album “Raising Sand.” (I knew of the song, but I had no idea that Salley wrote it.) Isaak also gave prime solos to piano and organ player Scott Plunkett, who tore up “Great Balls of Fire,” and lead guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, who played tasty solos all night. Rafael Padilla also did a great job on percussion, but he didn’t get a featured solo. 

Isaak sang most of his big hits like “Wicked Game,” “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” “Blue Hotel,” and “San Francisco Days,” hitting all the high notes, as he always does. He also sang some Christmas songs, but only about 3 or 4. He strolled out into the audience during “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and even ran up to the balcony. I thought I might be able to give Chris a high-five as he walked by, but he stopped about 15 or 20 feet away from where we were sitting and turned back. Shucks! My other close encounter with Chris was 2 years ago, when I was about 2 feet away from Chris when he sang “Love Me Tender” to a woman sitting in the row right behind me. Isaak also sang several songs from his most recent CD, the excellent “Beyond the Sun,” his tribute to Sun Records recording artists. (You could argue that Isaak’s entire career has been a tribute to Sun Records recording artists.) Honestly, I didn’t feel that the crowd was terribly enthusiastic last night. The State wasn’t quite sold out, and people didn’t stand up during the show unless Chris exhorted us to. Maybe the balcony was just a little sleepy, and perhaps things were more rockin’ down on the main floor, I’m not sure. The show ended with a three song encore of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Big Wide Wonderful World,” and an a cappella version of “Worked it Out Wrong,” which is a great song, but not a very up-tempo number to leave on. I would have liked a couple more songs; a rocker like “Speak of the Devil” “Like the Way She Moves” or “I’m Not Sleepy” would have been a great finale to the evening. But that’s a small complaint to have, and I finally got to hear one of my favorite Chris Isaak songs “Notice the Ring,” which he did a terrific version of. Isaak was quite loquacious last night, teasing his band members, kidding around, and making fun of himself. One of my favorite things Chris said was “I know you’re not supposed to take pictures in here, but go ahead. I didn’t dress this way to NOT have my picture taken!” It was a fun show, and I’ll be looking forward to the next time Chris Isaak comes to town. 

Set list, in not quite correct order:
American Boy
Blue Hotel
I Want Your Love
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Christmas on TV
Washington Square
Wicked Game
The Best I Ever Had
San Francisco Days
Notice the Ring
Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing
Somebody’s Crying
Ring of Fire
Dixie Fried
Can’t Help Falling in Love
Killing the Blues-Roly Salley solo
It’s Now or Never
Miss Pearl
Live It Up
Doin’ the Best I Can
Great Balls of Fire
Oh, Pretty Woman
Big Wide Wonderful World
Worked It Out Wrong

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Philip Roth Retires From Writing

Philip Roth, 2012. Photo by Fred R. Conrad, from The New York Times.

Book jacket for Nemesis, 2010, which may be Philip Roth's last book.
The acclaimed novelist Philip Roth recently announced his retirement from writing. This news makes me sad. I’ve just started recently to read Roth’s work and I think he’s a great writer. I read Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus when I was in college in either 1999 or 2000. I liked it, but I don’t remember too much about it; I need to re-read it. The first book of Roth’s that I seriously read was his 2010 novel, Nemesis, which, ironically enough, may well turn out to be his very last book. I was bowled over by Nemesis, which I wrote a review of here. I liked Nemesis so much that I decided now was the time to start reading some of Roth’s other books. So last winter I read his 1973 book, The Great American Novel, which is a very amusing title for a book. Philip Roth can say that he literally wrote The Great American Novel! Roth’s book may not be the definitive “Great American Novel,” but it’s pretty good and very funny. And it’s about baseball, my favorite sport. For The Great American Novel, Roth invented a fictional third major league of baseball, the Patriot League. The basis for most of the book is that during World War II, the owners of the Port Ruppert Mundys lease the stadium to the government, thus forcing the Mundys to play the entire season of baseball on the road. Which may sound like a crazy idea, but it’s the kind of idea that’s just stupid enough for major league baseball to have tried. The Great American Novel is a book I would recommend to baseball fans looking for a farcical take on the game. It’s very clear from the way the book is written that Roth is a big baseball fan. I don’t think he’s ever written anything else about baseball, which is surprising. I’m certainly not an expert on Philip Roth or his work, but I’m very interested to read more of his novels. 

Roth sounds pretty definitive in his pronouncement of retirement. He told the French magazine Les InRocks, “I decided that I was done with fiction, I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I have dedicated my life to the novel: I have studied it, I have taught it, I have written it and I have read it. To the exclusion of almost everything else. It’s enough. I no longer feel this dedication to write that I have experienced my whole life. The idea of struggling once more with writing is unbearable to me.” (Translation from The New York Times.) That sounds like a man who has definitely made up his mind. In an interview published today in The New York Times, Roth says that he has a Post-It on his computer that reads “The struggle with writing is over.” Roth said, “I look at that note every morning and it gives me such strength.” Yep, he sounds serious about retiring. It’s rather surprising to me to hear Roth describe writing as a struggle, since he’s been so prolific lately. I know all creative endeavors are a struggle to one degree or another, but the words seemed to be coming easily for Philip Roth, he doesn’t seem to be suffering from writer’s block. In fact, of the 31 books that Roth has published since 1959, 15 of them have been published since 1990, an extraordinary period of creativity. And since Roth hasn’t published anything since Nemesis in 2010, that means that he published 15 books in just 20 years, which is very productive for a serious literary fiction writer. And those 15 books were nearly all highly acclaimed works, winning Roth the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and three PEN/Faulkner Awards for Fiction. However, after finishing Nemesis, Roth felt that he might want to retire, so he spent a lot of time re-reading other fiction that had inspired him, and re-reading almost all of his own books. “So I read all that great stuff, and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it. I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.” Roth’s baseball metaphor is an apt one. A .300 batting average in baseball has long been the hallmark of a successful hitter. But a .300 batting average still means that you’re failing two-thirds of the time. And a writer could fail much more than two-thirds of the time and still come up with brilliant work when they do succeed. But no one except the writer knows how often they fail, how many times the day’s work ends up in the trash can, or how one great page was edited down from nine sub-standard pages. 

According to the Times article, Roth has appointed Blake Bailey as his biographer, and Roth is assisting Bailey as he combs through Roth’s archives. Bailey has written acclaimed biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, so the biography of Roth should be a treat. 

Here’s a link to the Times article, it’s very much worth reading, as Roth says it’s his last interview. There’s also an audio clip of Roth talking to Charles McGrath, the author of the article. I was struck by how young Roth sounds. He doesn’t sound like a 79-year-old; he sounds like he’s 40 or 50. The photograph of Roth by Fred R. Conrad that accompanies the article is also very nice, and I’ve posted it above. Roth looks good for his age, and his eyes show his intelligence-they look soulful, penetrating, and determined. 

As a reader, it’s easy to be greedy and always want more from a favorite author. But the fact is that Philip Roth is going to turn 80 next March, and he’s been producing remarkable fiction for the last 50 years, so I suppose it’s certainly fair for him to say, “That’s enough.” I hope Philip Roth enjoys his retirement from writing, he’s certainly earned it.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty-"Dick Tracy TV Special" (2009)

Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy, 1990.

Warren Beatty’s most recent theatrical movie was 2001’s dreadful “Town & Country,” (reviewed here) but since then his only released project has been a little-seen half-hour TV movie about Dick Tracy. It aired in 2009, and it’s unimaginatively titled “Dick Tracy TV Special,” according to IMDB. The special was produced, written, and directed by Warren Beatty and Chris Merrill. I caught a repeat screening of it on TCM in my quest to watch everything Beatty-related. It’s a very strange little piece, featuring Beatty, fully in character as Dick Tracy, answering questions from Leonard Maltin, who plays himself. Beatty takes the odd step of making Dick Tracy a “real” person whom Chester Gould made a comic strip of. Rather than play Dick Tracy as he is in the comic strips, Beatty chooses to play him as a character who lives in the real world outside of the comic strips. So Beatty, as Tracy, says things like, “Well, Chester Gould made these comics about me and my life as a detective, and later on people made movies about me.” It’s just an odd way to think of the character, so we have Warren Beatty playing Dick Tracy, who is talking about being played in a movie by Warren Beatty. Meta! 

Part of the reason this TV special was made was because Beatty sued the Tribune Company over the film rights to the Dick Tracy character. Tribune Company is a giant corporation that owns the Chicago Tribune, among other newspapers. The Dick Tracy comic strip was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Beatty bought the film rights to the Dick Tracy character in the mid-1980’s, as he was prepping his Dick Tracy movie, which was released in 1990. Beatty contends that he still owns the film rights to the Dick Tracy character, but the Tribune Company was protesting this. Beatty also contends that he is working on a sequel to Dick Tracy. But since Beatty proceeds at such a glacial pace, Tribune Company wanted to get the rights back, presumably so they could produce a dark, gritty re-boot of the Dick Tracy brand. Beatty made the “Dick Tracy TV Special” in part to prove that he was actually serious about using the film rights to Dick Tracy. Beatty won the lawsuit when it was finally settled in 2011, and thus he still owns the film rights to Dick Tracy. 

The special itself is a decidedly low-budget affair, and it opens with much anticipation for Tracy’s appearance at his interview with Leonard Maltin. When he does arrive, people ooo and ahhh over him, and say how great he looks for his age. (He’s more than 100 years old, according to Tracy/Beatty.) Tracy insists that he doesn’t need any make up for the interview, and Maltin fawns over how young he looks. Which begs the question, is this how Warren Beatty really sees himself? Or is he poking fun at himself? I’m not really sure. When asked how he keeps himself looking so young, Tracy/Beatty responds enigmatically “Pomegranates, pomegranates.” Okay, sure, whatever. 

The special features quite a few clips from the various movie versions of Dick Tracy that have been made over the years. The comic strip began its newspaper run in 1931, and the first movie featuring Dick Tracy was a Republic serial in 1937, starring Ralph Byrd as Tracy. Bizarrely, the film made Tracy into an FBI agent, or “G-Man,” when any dedicated follower of the strip knew that he was a plainclothes police detective who worked in an unnamed U.S. metropolis. Four Tracy serials were made, and in the mid 1940’s four more B-grade Tracy features appeared, with Byrd reprising his role as Tracy in the last two. (Morgan Conway replaced Byrd in the first two 1940’s Tracy films.) Byrd also appeared as Tracy in a short-lived TV series from 1950-52. Byrd died of a heart attack in 1952, putting an end to the TV series. 

As a kid who read tons of Dick Tracy collections of comic strips when I was young-most of them released around the time Beatty’s movie came out in 1990, one of my beefs with all the film adaptations of Dick Tracy, from the Republic serials to Beatty’s own movie, is that they never followed the exact storylines of Chester Gould’s comic strips. I think someone could have made very entertaining movies just filming the strips as they were written. Obviously, you might need to flesh the stories out to bring them up to feature length, or you could simply make shorter movies. I can understand Beatty’s creative decision, if you’ve only got one shot to make a Dick Tracy movie, you can’t just focus on one colorful villain, you really need to include as many of them as possible. But I would say that the pages of the Dick Tracy comic strip were much more exciting than the rather dull Tracy adaptations of the 1940’s, which didn’t feature any of Gould’s colorful villains. 

The only amusing moments of the special are when Beatty, as Tracy, comments about the Warren Beatty film version of Dick Tracy. Tracy/Beatty heaps praise on Ralph Byrd and Morgan Conway’s portrayals of “himself” on screen. When Maltin presses him about Beatty, he says: “Beatty was, he was, uh, fine.  He was no Ralph Byrd!” When asked specifically about the Warren Beatty Dick Tracy movie, Tracy/Beatty says, “The Warren Beatty movie, to tell you the truth I think that the scenery’s a little phony. Whether that was intentional or not, I really couldn’t say. I don’t know why he wouldn’t have wanted it to look real.” This is just a weird thing for Tracy/Beatty to say. Obviously Warren Beatty himself knows whether or not he intended the scenery to look “phony” in “Dick Tracy,” as he directed it! Maybe this is Beatty’s backhanded way of saying that as a director he intended the scenery to look phony, but that point seems rather obvious to anyone who’s seen the movie. Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” is purely a comic strip come to life, full of rich, vibrant colors and over the top acting from Al Pacino. Beatty, as Tracy, goes on to say that the movie “Gave you a feeling that you were in some sort of musical comedy.” Well, fair enough, the movie did feature several original songs by Stephen Sondheim. About the best that Tracy/Beatty can say is that “The picture that Beatty made had a lot of uh, a lot of color.” Again, very true. 

As a dedicated Beatty fan, the funniest moment for me was when Tracy/Beatty comments on Warren Beatty’s personality. After Maltin points out that Beatty produced, directed, and wrote “Dick Tracy,” as well as starring in it, Tracy/Beatty responds, “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a low opinion of himself, if you know what I mean.” This is exactly what a lot of people might say about Warren Beatty! And here’s Warren Beatty sort-of, saying it about himself. Tracy/Beatty goes on to say about Warren Beatty, “As you know, he’s kinda public about running around being what I would call a knee-jerk liberal, and that’s something I don’t have a tremendous amount of patience for, I’m a conservative. I’ve never gotten to know the man, so I don’t want to seem judgmental.” Funny, ridiculous, and totally meta. No one can accuse Beatty of not being true to the character of Dick Tracy, as later on in the strip, particularly in the 1970’s, Chester Gould had Tracy go on occasional rants about how criminals were being coddled by too many civil rights that were hampering the police in doing their job. More than one villain in the strip temporarily goes free on a legal technicality; while Tracy, and the reader, knows that they are really guilty. It’s also funny to see and hear Beatty poke a little fun at his public image. The whole special begs the question: is Beatty more comfortable giving an interview as Dick Tracy than as himself?

The “Dick Tracy TV Special” is a very slight offering in the filmography of Warren Beatty. It’s really just a footnote in his career, and not a very good or entertaining footnote at that. I can only hope that it will spur Beatty on to make another full-length movie, which will hopefully resurrect his seemingly moribund film career.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Xcel Center

The view from our seats of Bruce and the E Street Band, 11/12/12. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)

On Monday night I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live for the first time at the Xcel Center. I had read about Bruce’s legendary three-hour concerts, but it was an amazing experience to actually be in the audience. Needless to say, it was a terrific show. Bruce packs so much emotion and intensity into each song. I don’t know how he does it. My wife said to me during the show, “I feel guilty sitting down during this concert because he’s working so hard. I feel like if he’s not sitting down I shouldn’t be sitting down either.” Springsteen has such a deep connection to his fans, and he seems so genuine in his interactions with them. He’s like the opposite of Bob Dylan, who hardly ever acknowledges the crowd in any way. 

Springsteen seemed to be in a great mood right away, as he did a lap through the crowd during the opening song, “I’m a Rocker.” He came about 10 or 20 feet away from where we were sitting. It was pretty cool to see him that up close. Bruce went back to the stage and sang “Hungry Heart,” and during the song he ran out into the audience again and crowd-surfed back to the stage. I was a little worried for Bruce, as it took the crowd a really long time to get him to the stage! But he made it back in one piece. He certainly could have waited longer into the show before he went down into the audience, but I think by doing it right away he raised the excitement level in the audience. Springsteen played some deep album cuts at the beginning of the concert, like “Night,” from “Born to Run.” He also sang a lot of songs from his most recent album, “Wrecking Ball.” One of the emotional high points of the night was Bruce’s speech during “My City of Ruins.” Bruce’s vocals on “My City of Ruins” were really moving, he reminded me of Sam Cooke. In Bruce’s speech he talked about ghosts and people who were no longer with us, which of course made everyone think of the late Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s legendary saxophone player, who passed away in 2011. It also paid tribute to the late Danny Federici, the E Street Band’s longtime organ player. Springsteen’s current tour is the first E Street Band tour since Clemons died, and his nephew Jake Clemons played the saxophone solos in concert, and he did a terrific job. Jake sent shivers down my spine with his playing of the solo on “Jungleland.” 

“Pay Me My Money Down,” from “The Seeger Sessions,” was a highlight of the evening, featuring an enthusiastic performance from the entire band, and extended solos from the horn section. There were a lot of other great moments, like Bruce taking a bite of a candy bar offered to him by a young fan during “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” and, during the same song, Bruce picking a little girl out of the audience to sing the chorus with him. It was great to hear signature songs like “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” and “Dancin’ in the Dark,” which had the entire audience on their feet singing along with the Boss. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” featured a moving video tribute to Clemons after Springsteen sang the lyric, “Well, the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.” After “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “American Land,” it was finally time to go home, after three hours with the Boss.

Springsteen played a lot of lead guitar during the concert, and I was impressed with how good a guitar player he is. The rest of the E Street Band are all pretty darn amazing as well. Many times during the concert I thought to myself, “This is what rock and roll is all about, a performer giving it his all and communicating directly with his audience.” As long as there are performers like Bruce Springsteen, live music will continue to flourish and thrive. Of course, it helps that Springsteen is one of the greatest songwriters ever, as one of the greatest live performers. 

Set list:
1. I'm A Rocker
2. Hungry Heart
3. No Surrender
4. Night
5. Loose Ends
6. Something In The Night
7. Stolen Car
8. We Take Care Of Our Own
9. Wrecking Ball
10. Death To My Hometown
11. My City Of Ruins
12. The E Street Shuffle
13. Pay Me My Money Down
14. Devils & Dust
15. Youngstown
16. Murder Incorporated
17. She's The One
18. Shackled And Drawn
19. Waitin' On A Sunny Day
20. The Rising
21. Badlands
22. Land Of Hope And Dreams
23. Jungleland
24. Born To Run
25. Dancin' in the Dark
26. Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
27. American Land