Thursday, September 17, 2015
Reckless, which Hynde wrote without the aid of a ghost writer, is not just a music diary. It’s also a time capsule, looking back at the days when the Pill allowed casual sex to explode along with the music that was dominating the radio waves. And it’s the story of one woman’s strange, often painful journey through two decades, a journey that seems punctuated by death and wretchedness, to start a band that would kiss fame on the mouth but not get to go all the way, told without the self-importance that usually infects most rock star memoirs.
Pretenders fans, of course, may wish for more detailed discussion of Hynde’s talent, but she doesn’t hold herself up as a great artist, claiming only that the punk era allowed primitives like her to be heard. Any “elation” she felt after writing a song quickly turned into “anxiety”, for she feared she’d never write another one. Hynde’s humility is touching, but a bit more insider stuff would’ve been welcome. Then again, maybe she was too high to remember what happened.
Hynde’s prose is like her songwriting. It bristles, it bops, it rarely keeps to a standard time signature. Just as The Pretenders could mix rough rockers with tender ballads, she turns in chapters that are energetic and wild, next to sections that are bittersweet and, in some cases, enigmatic. But she’s not the tough rocker chick we’ve always imagined. She’s a bit of an insecure bumbler; she actually waited for both of her parents to die before she sat down to write her story. The bad girl we thought we knew, despite dropping several F-bombs, is nowhere in sight.
Though life in The Pretenders was frustrating, it was initially joyful. When, after years of trying to form a band, Hynde finally meets James Honeyman-Scott, Martin Chambers, and Pete Farndon, it’s as if an orphan has finally found a home. Some of Hynde’s most enjoyable writing is when she winsomely recalls Honeyman-Scott’s guitar playing, how he “oozed melody,” and how he made her “more than I could have ever been on my own.”
Hynde started out as a pensive child who enjoyed long solitary walks around Akron, and spent her time on the grammar school playground pretending to be a horse named Royal Miss, “carefully avoiding the area where the rest of the girls in our class were watching the boys play kickball.” From there, like most kids of the 1960s, she became entrenched in the groovy new sounds on the radio, an experience enhanced by growing up in Ohio, where the radio ruled. Concerts, too, were vital. Seeing Mitch Ryder perform gave her a peek at her own future.
“He was a mesmerizing showman in his blousy pirate shirt and dress pants, his belt buckle slung to the side, resting provocatively on his hip bone. Slinky.” Just like Hynde would look years later on an album cover.
She also was a girl who put off womanhood as long as possible, not having sex until she was 19, but quickly finding herself in and out of the clap clinic.
Her ideal man was the stereotypical scrawny English rocker, and she eventually linked up with one: Ray Davies of The Kinks. She recalls their stormy relationship as “a battle of wills,” but it gets no more coverage than the time Hynde tried to make a cup of tea for Brian Eno. A marriage, a cup of tea, an ugly scene in Memphis where she kicked out the windows of a cop car, none of this gets more than a page or two, as if Hynde treats each event like a three minute single.
A recurring theme in the book is the idea of kismet. Coincidental run ins with people who would help her, from journalist Nick Kent to Motörhead’s Lemmy, all seem strangely preordained. Granted, London was a small town, but it seems odd that she kept falling in with people who turned out to be so important to her success. “How can we prove that anything is arbitrary?” she writes.
Another frequent topic is Hynde’s ambivalence about female roles. “The idea of trying to be sexy was repellent to me, something I’d never deliberately do.” All her life she prided herself on being “like a guy,” with quick reflexes and street savvy, yet bass-playing boyfriend Farndon once bullied her into sharing a songwriting credit he didn’t deserve, and Hynde admits to not only crying over various men, but that in her younger days she wasn’t far removed from being a generic, man-hungry barfly fueled up on Mad Dog 20/20, “the wino’s tipple of choice.”
But what was it about being in a band? At one point she writes, “The funny thing about my unyielding desire to be in a band was that I really had no idea what I was going for. I just knew it had to be hard, not soft. I never liked soft things. Hard for me, every time: tea, strong; coffee, black; ice cream, frozen, not melty. Rock? Hard, not soft; aggressive, unapologetic, masculine – that was it.”
During the worst times, Hynde describes her bandmates as “depraved drug fiends,” and “sadistic little shits,” with every sound check becoming “a battle for dominance.” She describes herself as no less depraved, citing the time renowned degenerate Johnny Thunders, whom Hynde credits with bringing heroin into the UK music scene, once warned her to pull herself together. Meanwhile, photographers desperately doctored band photos to cover up Farndon’s “green pallor of smack.”
Farndon’s decline was horrific. Dumped by Hynde as a lover, he continued as The Pretenders’ bassist but grew nasty, violent. Friction between Farndon and Honeyman-Scott increased, while Hynde tried to keep the peace.
“Pete’s junkie persona had taken over and was inhabiting him,” Hynde writes, “like a demonic possession.”
Hynde’s descriptions of people in her circle are pinpoint. She describes Johnny Rotten, whom she almost married so she could stay in England, as “a real little bastard when he wanted to be.” Of Lemmy, she writes that he was “hip to the trip and didn’t touch anything except amphetamines, smoke, and Jack Daniel’s.” Iggy Pop, with whom Hynde had a brief dalliance, had eyes like “a sea of green with a bloodshot sun rising.” Her accounts of Honeyman-Scott farting on cue make us wish we’d known the guy.
Just as the band’s momentum was building, Honeyman-Scott died of a cocaine heart attack. Farndon died in a bathtub with a needle in his arm. “There’s your rock and roll ending,” Hynde writes. “I’d taken him into my reckless world and lost him there.” Though Hynde would continue performing and recording with various people backing her, the original Pretenders lineup was sui generis. That Hynde ends her story in 1984 says a lot.
Farndon’s death still weighs on Hynde, but the fun-loving and brilliant Honeyman-Scott is the book’s most haunting figure. Long before she knew him, Hynde heard Honeyman-Scott playing guitar in a house next door while she was staying in Wales. And that’s what gives this story its gloomy edge. Hynde claims that Honeyman-Scott had been hovering around her life for more than a year before they actually met. Though she never turns mawkish, Hynde still marvels at the kismet that brought them together.
“I remembered someone playing some sweet guitar and wondering who it was,” she writes of that strange day in Wales. "I could hear his unique sound floating over the gardens and into my room; he had been near me all along.”
It’s enough to make you believe in destiny. That’s why The Pretenders’ saga is among the saddest of showbiz tragedies.
- Don Stradley
- Don Stradley
Monday, September 14, 2015
I know very little about David Foster Wallace. I know he wrote some books and that I once tried to read one. I couldn’t finish it. Reading him was like being trapped in a room with someone who is fascinated by the most trivial thoughts and wouldn't shut up. Wallace fussed over his every single notion like a person with OCD fussing over whether or not they turned off the stove this morning. That he eventually hanged himself added weight to my sense that he was just a big, fat head case. Keep in mind, I was glad Wallace existed. At a time when there were no “important” writers around, he’d keep the seat warm until someone else came along. Yet, his fame worried me. It was as if the American reading public could only absorb childish tripe, cheap erotica, or the sort of Metamucil dished out by writers like Wallace. It was as if books were either written for meatheads or eggheads.
The End of the Tour stars Jason Segel as Wallace. I don’t know enough about Wallace to tell you if Segel does a fair impression of him, but I initially winced at the idea of Segel playing the role. This meant Wallace the depressed navel gazer would be coming to movie screens as a giant, lovable, Jewish teddy bear. This wasn’t as bad as the time in the 1980s when a story circulated that Stallone was all fired up to play Edgar Allen Poe, but it was close. From the trailer, which has been playing in art houses for several weeks as if trumpeting the arrival of the Colossus of Rhodes, Segel appeared to be playing Wallace as an insecure fellow who feels funny about being so smart, like one of those powerful cartoon hillbillies who can’t explain his super strength. This, combined with the fact that writers rarely make good subjects for films, was enough to chill me on the idea of a Wallace movie.
Yet, I liked it. Playwright Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000, wrote the screenplay based on a memoir by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer who interviewed Wallace in 1996 at the height of Wallace’s fame. The movie is what used to be called a “two hander,” with most of the screen time taken by Lipsky and Wallace as they discuss everything from the perils of success to the loneliness of the long-winded writer. The story moves along in a surprisingly high spirited manner, the interviewer and his subject circling each other with nervous caution. They occasionally reveal something, then back away, like two spinning tops that have accidently clicked against each other. Wallace is uncomfortable carrying the weight of American letters on his stooped shoulders, so he embraces his average guyness: he loves dumb action movies, devours junk food, and openly fantasizes about one day meeting Alanis Morissette. At first Lipsky is amused that this superstar egghead is actually a meathead, but he eventually grows suspicious and accuses Wallace of being a phony. Wallace mopes, struggles for words, grows surely. Around and ‘round they go: interviewer meets subject, interviewer loses subject, interviewer doesn’t quite get him in the end.
Throughout, Margulies’ theatrical sense keeps the dialogue from going fruity on us. He keeps us guessing. Is Wallace, as Lipsky suggests, a faker? Friction develops as Lipsky chips away to get his interview. When Lipsky accompanies Wallace on his way to a bookstore appearance, their closeness makes Wallace downright irritable. Lipsky, enamored of his subject, pulls back when things get too prickly. Watching how close the two come to utter contempt for each other is part of what makes the movie fascinating. (The filmmakers were also smart to not include any of Wallace’s writing in the movie, for all it would take is one bum passage from Infinite Jest to leave us doubting the guy's greatness.)
Lipsky has his agenda. His marching orders include prying into Wallace’s past, which allegedly includes a nervous breakdown, a suicide watch at a mental institution, and a rumored heroin addiction. As Lipsky, Jesse Eisenberg is the movie’s unsung hero. He has the less showy role, but he’s a perfect counterweight to the more mercurial Wallace/Segel. Eisenberg makes Lipsky a memorable character, not when he’s wiping tears away in memory of the dead author, but when he shows himself to be a bit of a snake, the sort of hack journalist who realizes he’ll never be one of the greats, but still feels within his rights to hit on one of Wallace’s ex-girlfriends. Eisenberg’s is a sly, nuanced performance. Segel, too, finds the right tone as Wallace. While he never seems like someone who will write a 1,000 page novel, Segel taps into Wallace’s vulnerability and fear. It was key to cast a likable actor as Wallace, otherwise his constant prattling would become annoying. Segel also has a talent, going all the way back to his days on Freaks and Geeks, for playing men who are bewildered by their circumstances, whether he’s surrounded by Muppets, or in Hawaii trying to woo Mila Kunis There’s a great love of life in Segel’s characters, but there is melancholy, too, as if his great love isn’t entirely reciprocated. When cornered, he’ll fight back, only to be beaten. Has the cinema ever boasted such a magnetic loser?
Even more than just a keen dialog about success and genius, the movie works as an old fashioned road flick. The book tour brings the pair from Wallace’s snow covered home in Illinois to the wilds of Minneapolis. The Mitsubishi plant, the convenience stores, the cheap hotels, all provide a gummy undercoating for their highfaluting talk, while Minneapolis, with its Mall of America and the Mary Tyler Moore statue, turns out to be the most American of cities. As Wallace sheepishly says at one point, “It’s not un-fun.” This is the same Wallace who suspects too much internet porn will result in a kind of spiritual death. This seems to be Wallace’s conundrum: he’s guilty about enjoying himself on the way to oblivion.
Still, there are some misfires. Director James Ponsoldt tends to reach for the most heavy-handed visual metaphors available. We get a lot of scenes where people are shaving ice from windshields, a film class 101 ploy to show characters digging under facades, while Lipsky and Wallace are constantly lost, either in parking lots or at the mall, an unsophisticated stab at showing the confusion of their inner journeys. Ponsoldt also gives a little too much play to Wallace’s flabby black Labradors, as if Segel isn’t cuddly enough. The biggest groaner is when Lipsky beds down in Wallace’s guest room, the walls lined with hundreds of copies of Wallace’s own books, shot from below to appear sky high, as if Lipsky has inadvertently invaded Wallace’s mind and now the walls threaten to tumble down and crush him. We get that Lipsky is no mental match for Wallace, but did we need such an obvious symbol to smack it home?
It’s also unfortunate that in a movie where the two main characters are so perfectly drawn, the side characters seem like dull extras patched in from other movies. Joan Cusack, usually a treat, provides unneeded comic relief as a book tour chauffer, and the talented Ron Livingstone is wasted as Lipsky’s one-note, cliché’ d magazine editor. Mickey Sumner and Mamie Gummer are also insipid as a pair of Wallace’s friends who meet him in Minneapolis. But such hiccups are few and brief. The cinematography by Jakob Ihre is appropriately misty and cold, and the nineties music is well chosen and never obtrusive. The movie never overdoes the sentiment, and thankfully, Wallace isn’t portrayed as a misunderstood, tragic hero. Still, I was bugged when Wallace claimed to enjoy dancing, and cited the Frug as one of his specialties. We later see him lumbering around a dance floor like an idiot. Would it have killed him to do a proper Frug?
Regardless, I walked out of the theater feeling that I’d seen something special. Not only that, but now I’m ready for Stallone as Poe.
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Thursday, September 3, 2015
That’s pussy stuff.
Charles was booed non-stop from the day he beat Louis in 1950, to his final bout in 1959. Even the kids in Charles’ Cincinnati hometown hated him for beating Louis.
I used to think these stories were exaggerated, but after reading William Dettloff’s Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life, it seems Charles’ most impressive feat was not that he beat Archie Moore three times, but that he had 121 pro fights and was booed for at least three quarters of them.
In writing this book, which is superbly researched, Dettloff, for 15 years a senior writer at The Ring, has chosen a formidable project. For one thing, Charles had never been the subject of a biography, so there’s not much of a trail to follow. For another, Dettloff wanted to solve a little mystery: Why didn’t people realize Charles was a genius? Who the hell else goes 3-0 against a prime Moore?
Of course, there has been a reappraisal of Charles in recent years, perhaps starting with Dettloff’s 2002 Ring article where he cited Charles as the greatest light heavyweight of all time, even though Charles never held a title in that weight class. This was a bold statement, akin to declaring Vanilla Fudge the greatest band of the 1960s. But Dettloff stood his ground, made his arguments (largely, the reasoning went, it was because Ezzy came out best in a roundelay of exceptional light heavies who fought each other in the 1940s) and may have inspired a sort of grass roots reevaluation of Charles. At times, it got a little goofy, such as in 2006 when Charles was named the 11th greatest fighter of all time by the IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization). The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. In just a few years, Charles had gone from underrated to overrated.
Dettloff does a convincing job of portraying Charles as a gallant professional who often fought men who outweighed him by 30 pounds, and as a kind of virtuoso who understood the techniques of boxing better than most. And he does this without glossing over the two main knocks against Charles: that he was overly cautious, occasionally letting fights get away from him by being too timid; and that he was unpredictable, the sort of boxer who sometimes stepped into the ring and simply looked as if he’d forgotten why he was there. Like the venerated trainer Ray Arcel once said, Charles was “like a good race horse who won’t run for you.”
Charles wasn’t always so diffident. It was understandable that he was wary against heavyweights, because those bigger guys were dangerous. But as a young fighter against middleweights and 175-pounders, he was a terror. He’d been a mild mannered, Bible reading youngster who lived with his grandmother, but as Dettloff writes of those early days, the boxing ring was the one place where Charles “could go bad for a while.” And Dettloff’s book makes the case that Charles, now and then, was a legit bad ass. He could foul like the dirtiest street fighter, and wasn’t averse to hitting a guy when he was down. His wins were often ultra-violent, where he’d knock his rival to the canvas many times before the contest was mercifully stopped. A right hand thrown at Moore’s head in their third bout landed “with such force that some in press row winced at the noise it created.”
If Charles occasionally flaked out, or turned in a dull performance, well, Dettloff makes it appear as if every other fighter of the time did the same thing. When you were fighting every three weeks, as they often did in those days, you were bound to have some weird nights, like the time Charles was dropped eight times in a bout with Lloyd Marshall, or the time a few months earlier when he was decked seven times by Jimmy Bivins. Charles whipped those guys in rematches, which brings to light the bipolar nature of Charles’ checkered career.
But if Dettloff is a mostly effective believer in Charles’ greatness, he’s savvy enough to know that Charles’ muted personality isn’t enough for a full length book. He smartly weaves in anecdotes about other fighters, glorious tidbits about heavyweight contender Elmer Ray wrestling alligators in carnivals, and Jersey Joe Walcott benefiting from his shady connections. The book is also well-stocked with side characters, such as Charles’ main mouthpiece, Jake Mintz, a colorful little prick who never met a word in the English language he couldn’t maul. Charles worked at a time when gangsters and fight fixers lurked at every corner, and ring deaths were just part of the business. The political side of boxing was even more venal than it is now, so it’s no wonder Charles just kept his head down and went about his job of fighting. He was no match for the world he lived in and he knew it.
In several cases, Dettloff presents fights that Charles should’ve won but for one reason or another came up short. There were ringside judges who voted against Charles when he seemed to be a clear winner, and referees who apparently had something against Charles. Even former champ Jack Dempsey, who refereed a bout between Charles and Rex Layne, helped screw Charles out of a win by scoring seven rounds even! Yet, time and again, the root cause of these lousy decisions was Charles’ lack of aggression. Maybe he was brilliant, maybe he was undervalued, but he would still appear to be, in the final accounting, erratic.
The book isn’t just the raving of an advocate; it’s also a detailed recounting of Charles’ boxing career, the endless ups and downs he endured, and how he was constantly trying to make up for blown opportunities, all for an American public that, as Dettloff writes, didn’t know “there was more than one way to be great.”
All boxing stories have familiar plot points, and this one is no exception, from Charles’ poor upbringing in Lawrenceville Georgia, “where a young black boy couldn’t look a white man in the eye without permission,” to his championship years, where he lived large for a while. Charles occasionally lost his cool and growled at pressmen, but this was reasonable since most articles about him included the words “unimpressive” and “disappointing”. Then came the downfall, and Charles’ long decline. Indeed, it was a boxing life: poor, rich, poor, dead.
Dettloff has a meat and potatoes style, but can be elegant when he wants to be. He writes of Sam Baroudi, nearly dead from Charles’ blows and being carted out of Chicago Stadium, “splitting the crowd and then disappearing into a dark hallway like a broken raft floating out to sea.” Of Rocky Marciano’s prolonged beating of Charles in their second bout: “Rocky was like a novice farmhand struggling through slaughtering a prize hog.”
Charles remains a puzzle. As thoughtful as this biography is, he’s as unknown to us as ever. Charles’ personal life, which ended with him dying at 51 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, may have been harder to reconstruct than his ring career because info was scarce. Yet, the author does a lot with a little, and there’s never a sense that anything is being skimmed over. We learn just enough about Charles’ family life, his occasional womanizing, his sketchy pals at the jazz clubs, to get the picture. Not surprisingly, it’s the dramatic build up and aftermath of the Charles-Louis bout that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Louis had been Charles’ hero at one time, then his rival, and ultimately, a co-star in what felt like a “long soap opera”, even helping to prop up Charles’ failing body at a fund-raising tribute in 1968.
As for why Charles didn’t get his due for beating Moore three times, here’s my own theory: Those bouts took place in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Had they been in New York, there would’ve been more noise around them. New York was the biggest media horn in those days. Also, they weren’t title bouts, which means they weren’t destined for the history books. Finally, at the time Moore fought Charles, he’d already lost to Jimmy Bivins, Charlie Burley, and others; he wasn’t yet the media sensation he’d become in the 1950s, so beating him may not have been viewed as a major event. Yet, it’s interesting that in the only “authorized” biography of Moore, a 1991 book by Marilyn G. Douroux, Charles is scarcely mentioned. For Moore, Charles was like un ugly high school picture he didn’t want anyone to see.
That’s my two cents. I apologize for adding them to this review of Bill Dettloff’s highly readable book.
- Don Stradley
Wednesday, September 2, 2015
GUNG HO! (1943)
U.S. Marine Raiders in Action...Blasting Their Way To Tokyo!
HOT LEAD! COLD STEEL! YANKEE GUTS!
We're going back to World War II with an exciting feature called GUNG HO! This film is about how the newly formed 2nd Marine Raider Battalion faced a frightening first mission during the early days of the war. The assignment was to smash the much larger Japanese garrison on Makin Island. The movie has a gritty, realistic feel, achieved by the use of actual combat footage, and a cast of reliable Hollywood tough guys, including Randolph Scott, and Noah Beery Jr. Also, keep an eye out for a young Robert Mitchum in one of his earliest roles as the swaggering 'Pig-Iron' Matthews!
The film's title, "Gung Ho", is a Chinese expression that translates roughly as "to work together". Major Evans Carlson, who was the basis for the character played by Randolph Scott, picked up the phrase from a friend who had worked with some Chinese organizations. Carlson liked the expression, and introduced it to his troops. His men loved it, and the phrase became the motto of the 2nd Marine Battalion. The phrase became so popular that it worked its way into the English language. But chances are, the first time most Americans ever heard the expression was in this movie...
THREE CAME HOME (1950)
Three Came Home is the story of one woman's confinement in a World War II Japanese prison camp. Adapted from Agnes Newton Keith's war-time prison memoir, the movie shows Keith courageously dealing with being separated from her husband, and then surviving with her young son in captivity until the end of the war. The film was directed by Oscar nominee Jean Negulesco, and stars Claudette Colbert as Agnes Newton Keith. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote upon the film's release that it will “shock you, disturb you, and tear your heart out, but will fill you fully with a great respect for a heroic soul”.
Colonel Suga was played by Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa. You might know him best for his Oscar nominated performance in Bridge on the River Kwai where he played another stern camp commandant. Hayakawa had been a star in the silent film era, but his career suffered in relation to whatever anti-Asian sentiment was going on in America at the time. He spent most of the 1930s and ‘40s acting in other parts of the world, but after World War II he gave Hollywood one last shot. This turned out to be the best time of his career, for along with River Kwai and Three Came Back, he appeared in films like Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo, and Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart. In 1960, Hayakawa received a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame…
All of these movies are available through thefilmdetective.com, where vintage movies are restored, remastered, and reborn. Follow us on Twitter
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