Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MILES AHEAD...


Miles Ahead Movie Review
    
     You don’t have to know much about Miles Davis to know Miles Ahead is a lot of hokum. Even if the plot about Davis hunting down a rare recording he’d made before it can fall into the hands of evil Columbia Records execs sounds plausible, it takes only a few scenes for you to realize you’ve stepped into a kind of jazz fantasia, as if a Davis biopic had been hijacked by Quentin Tarantino and turned into a ‘70s Blaxploitation flick, suitable for drive-ins and midnight shows.
     Hokum, of course, isn’t always  a bad thing. And when it’s pulled off with the bravado shown by director and star Don Cheadle, can you really complain? As a biography, it stinks. But as a rip-roaring night at the movies, it’s not bad. That it weaves some actual events from  Davis’ life with scenes that seem lifted from a Fred Williamson movie is probably easier to digest if you’ve read some James Ellroy, a writer known for taking dead personalities and using them in his novels, and teaching us that the dead can’t sue for slander. The problem is that Cheadle wrote this movie with five or six other people, and we can practically see the fingerprints all over it. Maybe one wanted it to be a buddy picture, another wanted a serious look at an important cultural figure, another wanted it to feel like Shaft. The result is weird. Imagine Raging Bull if, in the middle of it, La Motta and Sugar Ray decided to team up and take on the Mafia, and you get the vibe of this one.
     What Cheadle gives us is a sort of “super biography,” the DC comics edition of Davis’ life, where he’s not just a black man suffering the indignities of racial subjugation and police brutality, but actually becomes a sort of kick-ass version of Davis, an actual gun-toting avenger who isn’t going to take it anymore, and doesn’t care who gets hurt. For a while, I was content to go on this crazy ride with Cheadle. Energy counts for something, and Cheadle certainly comes out swinging. That Cheadle’s first directorial feature is such a dynamic piece shouldn’t surprise us, since he’s worked with some of the top directors in the business and is, obviously, a smart and talented man. With cinematographer Roberto Schaefer and the design duo of Hannah Beachler and Helen Britten,  Cheadle creates a beautiful movie to look at, switching from the 1960s to the ‘70s as it does, with hairpin editing by John Axelrod and Kayla Emter, explosive color, and, of course, the music of Miles Davis to power the thing along. The 1960s scenes have the style and panache of Verve album covers; the ‘70s scenes feel like every shag rug and cocaine party you ever imagined while reading an issue of ‘Down Beat.’
     Cheadle plays Davis as a shambling, mumbling, misanthrope locked away in a self-imposed exile. He’s wired on cocaine, limping from a degenerating hip, and lamenting the wife who left him years earlier. His real gripe is with Columbia records because the executives want more product, while he’s convinced he has nothing left to say. When a reporter (played by Ewan McGregor) shows up at his home, Davis responds by punching the poor guy in the face. A few scenes later, Davis is teaching the reporter how to throw a punch. Davis, you see, is a boxing fan, and has a heavy bag set up in his recording studio; while strangers are partying in his living room, he teaches the reporter how to throw a punch. Boxing imagery pops up throughout the movie – Cheadle must not realize it’s a worn out metaphor by now – culminating in an improbable showdown between the record executives and Davis at, of all places, a boxing arena. The Columbia suits, looking and acting like heels from Scarface, are sitting ringside when Davis storms in, firing his gun, demanding justice, demanding his tape. Then Cheadle goes surreal on us, and instead of boxers in the ring, we see Davis, much younger, playing his horn in the ring. This cornball shit might dazzle the uninitiated, but more seasoned filmgoers will see it for the rookie directing stunt that it is. By then, the movie’s high-flying charm has been played out, and we’ve been numbed by gunplay and car chases.
     Another numbing effect is, strangely, Cheadle himself. He talks in a raspy voice and shuffles around like Fred Sanford, but after a while he seems less like Davis and more like someone dressed as Davis for a costume party. He wears the oversized glasses and the frizzed out hair, but his basset hound features don’t quite work for the angry Davis of legend; it’s as if Shaquille O’Neal were playing Jim Brown. And Cheadle can’t stop giving himself anguished close-ups, his eyes dampening as he recalls the woman he done wrong. Also, his relationship with McGregor is too pat and predictable. McGregor is in the clichéd role of the white guy who will be smartened up by the black star of the movie, and though he uses his perky personality to full effect, he can’t lift himself out of a nothing part. It’s like watching Owen Wilson with a Scottish accent. 
     Emayatzy Corinealdi as Frances, Davis’ long suffering first wife, fares a bit better. She’s slinky and sultry, and pulls off the prerequisite scene where she yells at Davis for sleeping around with other women. But as written, she’s the same angry wife we’ve seen in hundreds of movies. The other characters around Davis are made of even thinner cardboard. Davis is the noble, if drug-addled artist; everyone else is a villain or a leech, out to take advantage of him. They exist solely so Davis can hiss at them and threaten to cut their eyes out.
     The movie loves music, though, and it thunders from the screen like a locomotive. Cheadle handles the music scenes well, and appears to know his way around a trumpet. The band scenes look authentic, as we see Davis rehearsing and recording what would become ‘Sketches of Spain.’  The denouement, though, where Davis chats with a young trumpet player and decides to make a comeback, feels as tacked on as a clip-on tie. But keep looking at the scenery and digging the sounds, and you might not notice the movie’s cheap lining.
     I left the theater feeling disappointed. The feature had been amusing, and it was obviously a labor of love from Cheadle. Still, I felt it was all sound and fury and not much else. But when describing it to a friend of mine the next day, I told him the movie was well-done, and that he might enjoy it. I was surprised at myself. Then I remembered something Davis said in the movie about being a Gemini. “It’s like I’m two things at once,” he says. Miles Ahead might also be a Gemini, in that it’s two movies at once, one good, one not so good.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: BUKOWSKI ON LOVE


LOVE NOTES FROM A DIRTY OLD DRUNK
Get ready for a kinder, gentler Bukowski
By Don Stradley

  

As a poet, Charles Bukowski was prolific to the point of mania, and very uneven. Reading Charles Bukowski On Love, an anthology from Ecco published a few months back to coincide with Valentine’s Day, one feels that had Bukowski not attained a reputation in Europe for his seedy subject matter, and in America for the cult movie Barfly, he’d barely rate a turn at your local poetry slam. Most of the early pieces here sound mannered, with titles like ‘I Taste The Ashes of Your Death,’ and lines like “you mean/a love I have not met/is less than a selfishness I call near?” Later, as the collection inches into Bukowski’s work of the 1970s, we get some of the more familiar tone, the shit-stained panties, “cunt hairs in the teeth,” and the like. By that time, of course, Bukowski had achieved a kind of fame and could write about farts if he wished, and he often did, and editors happily printed his work, just to have big bad Buk listed as a contributor. 

With no political leanings and no particular reverence for traditional poetic form, Bukowski must’ve seemed like a relief from Viet Nam, Nixon, civil rights, women’s liberation, and student upheavals. When his work began appearing in the LA Free Press and various skin mags, even those who didn’t care for him had to admit there was no one like him. His L.A. landscape, populated by vicious whores and violent drunks, felt real, but was cartoonish enough to fit alongside the underground comics and comedy albums of the day. As X-rated material weaved into the mainstream, Bukowski imbued his poems and stories with increasing frankness and humor. Soon, this writer who counted Céline and John Fante as influences was a favored court fool of the post hippie era. Rock stars and political figures died away, but the nasty old drunk leering at the women lived on, and on. Still, there were always moments in between the laughs and vulgarity that smelled, not just of cheap wine and dirty socks, but actual poetry. 

The poems collected in Bukowski On Love reflect only a fraction of his output and go nowhere towards a reassessment. The arrangement is neat - cherry picked samples from each era of Bukowski’s career pass by your eyes quickly. You'll get a few poems about his wives, his daughter, and a few about good old Jane, the woman played, more or less, by Faye Dunaway in Barfly. Hell, there’s even a love poem about his favorite Olympia typewriter, and a moving piece about a beloved harness driver whose “rhythmic crazy rocking was transferred from man to beast…” There are also a few photos of Bukowski looking teddy bearish and happy,  some of his illustrations (still bursting with primitive charm) and even a reproduction of an actual Bukowski-typed manuscript, for those, I suppose, interested in seeing his cross-outs (you’ll be amused to see that he misspelled “Los Angeles”). Yet, there’s something about Charles Bukowski On Love that makes it feel like a glorified stocking stuffer. Granted, if RCA could mine Elvis Presley’s old albums for a series of clueless rehashes and greatest hits packages, why can’t Ecco make a few more bucks off Bukowski the same way?  Ecco has already raided the Bukowski archives to put out Bukowski On Writing, and, get this, Bukowski On Cats, all edited by a chap named Abel Debritto who, according to the book’s flyleaf, “works in the digital humanities,” exactly the sort of high-blown distinction that would’ve sent Bukowski puking. 

If Ecco is determined to break the man up into sections and resell him a bit at a time, we might also expect such titles as Bukowski on Drinking, Bukowski On Horses, Bukowski on Rape, and Bukowski on Death. This could go on well into the 2030s, or as long as Ecco can squeeze a buck out of Buk. Is this method so bad, really? I don’t know. What made Bukowski interesting was that he used to give it all to you at once, the entire human comedy in one fat, hairy package, rather than parcel it out one topic at a time. Perhaps it’s the neatness of Charles Bukowski on Love that irritates me, the anal quality of it all, this feeling of Bukowski scrubbed clean. 

Of course, a few of the old favorites are here, including "Quiet Clean Girls in Gingham Dresses," and "One for Old Snaggletooth," and perhaps the best poem of his later years, "The Bluebird." One is still surprised when Bukowski puts aside his gruff personae and shows an unexpected gentleness, such as this litany about life’s simplest pleasures:

“I like reading the Sunday papers in bed
I like orange ribbons tied around the cat’s neck
I like sleeping against a body that I know well
I like black slips at the foot of my bed
At 2 in the afternoon.”

Still, Charles Bukowski On Love feels flimsy. To present nothing but Bukowski’s mushy side is akin to The Beatles without ‘Helter Skelter,’ or Sugar Ray Robinson fighting with only his right hand. Missing is the guy who wrote, “You boys can keep your virgins/give me hot old women in high heels/ with asses that forgot to get old.”  That’s from "One of the Hottest," a good poem not included here, for Debritto and Ecco wanted to create a quaint version of Bukowski,  ignoring the man who, despite the seismic changes going on in the country, focused solely on his own small existence among the bums and the postal workers and the horse betters, the lonely and the rotten, and wrote about whatever stuck to the windshield that day, which could be anything from his suicidal fantasies, to the strange allure of little girls, to the way ancient sorrows can well up in a man and stop him in his tracks, to the vagaries of luck, to the joys of Beethoven and Brahms, and occasionally, to the futility, and sometimes the quiet splendor, of love.


Friday, April 22, 2016

LET'S GET LOST...


    

     The most memorable scene of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988) takes place near the end, when the ravaged and drug addicted jazz legend Chet Baker has found himself at the Cannes Film Festival, trying in vain to get the attention of a small, uninterested audience.  Baker complains, partly to himself, but loud enough for others to hear,  that the crowd is terrible. Finally, he politely asks for silence so he can perform a song. It is, he explains, the sort of number that needs some quiet.
     Then, sitting on a wooden stool, holding his vaunted trumpet in his lap but not playing it, he slithers into a beautiful rendition of Elvis Costello’s ‘Almost Blue,’ his soft, childlike voice sliding around the melody. There’s drama when Baker sings, because he’s always on the verge of going off key, and we find ourselves rooting for him as he sneaks back into the song, not singing the notes so much as laying his voice next to them, gentle as a night breeze. He finishes. The handful of spectators applaud, moved; he merely shrugs, as if to say, Ok, that’s all I wanted to do 
     Let’s Get Lost was made before the documentary explosion of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s not as self-conscious as more recent documentaries, which often feel scripted and posed, with the filmmakers putting themselves onscreen as much as their subject. Weber, who was already known for his homoerotic Calvin Klein ads, creates a dreamy, downbeat atmosphere for this story of Chet Baker, filmed in a shimmering black and white; much of the film feels like a lazy summer evening in Santa Monica. Weber’s style also fits in with the clips from Howlers of the Dock, the cheesy Italian movie where Baker played ‘Chet l’americano,’ back when he walked a fine line between brooding trumpet master and teen idol.
     Weber teases the old glamor of Baker, filming him in the backseat of a convertible, a woman on each arm. It feels stagy, silly, until you see Baker’s withered face. He was 56 at the time of the film, but he looks 86 – the spirit of California cool’s past, dried up like an apple carving. Then we see him in a recording studio, laying down a ballad. It’s strange to hear the still youngish voice coming out of the mummified air. He talks, tells stories about his early days, but he’s not a great storyteller. He takes long pauses between thoughts, like he’s trying to recall a deep buried dream. As with most top musicians, he has no easy explanation for what he does. The trick to life, he offers, is to “find something you love to do, and then do it better than anyone else.” Baker seems to be in slow-motion, even when he’s not. Weber shoots some the movie in slow-motion, perhaps trying to capture the feel of floating through an evening while smacked out on heroin. 
     Gradually we learn the details: Baker, as a young trumpet prodigy, played with Charlie Parker, and was later part of Gerry Mulligan’s  groundbreaking “piano-less” quartet. Renowned jazz photographer William Claxton took photos of Baker back in 1953, and was floored by how the raw kid from Oklahoma was such a natural for the camera. Since most male jazz artists of the day were  eggheads in horn-rimmed glasses, or pudgy old guys with perspiring foreheads, young Baker must’ve seemed like a game changer. That he could play his horn like a sad ghost helped. But when he released an album of romantic ballads sung in a whispery voice, he sealed his fate among the jazz cognoscenti – he was irretrievably “West Coast,” an easy and disdainful label. 
     The movie follows Baker through what turned out to be the last year of his life. Shortly after the film was made, he fell from a window to his death, a life of music and secrets breaking apart on an Amsterdam sidewalk. Some think he was pushed. Judging by what we hear in the movie, Baker may have had some enemies who were perfectly willing to chuck him out a window. Interspersed with the footage of Baker are scenes of old friends, ex-wives, and fellow musicians sharing their thoughts. Baker was, by most accounts, a jerk. He was a liar, a manipulator, and like most junkies, irresponsible and unreliable.
     One old buddy from the Okie days remembers catching his girlfriend in bed with Baker. He only laughs. You had to keep an eye on that rascal, or he’d screw your girl! When your best friend is a rattlesnake, you learn to admire his bite.
     Baker had various wives and children, and we meet some of them in the movie. They seem like average folks, no special talents, just working and struggling, what Baker might’ve been like had he not discovered the trumpet. The children who appear in the film, teens mostly, put on a show of good cheer for Weber’s camera, but they seem distant from their father. He’s a mystery to them.
     Weber, who received an Oscar nomination for Let’s Get Lost, helped kick off a brief revival of interest in Baker that took place in the 1990s. Weber has spent a lifetime recording the male face and figure, mostly for print ads. He’s also directed other documentaries, and a handful of music videos, including one for late 80s heartthrob Chris Isaak, who appears briefly in Let’s Get Lost.  We can see why Weber’d be interested in Baker as a subject, if only because it’s the other side of the coin for male beauty – it’s male decay. The film, wrote Pauline Kael, “isn't primarily about Chet Baker the jazz musician; it's about Chet Baker the love object, the fetish.” Kael added, “It’s about love, but love with few illusions.”
     What Weber does so smartly is to let Baker stand alone. We don’t see a lot of jamming with other musicians, or arguing with ex-lovers. We usually see him by himself, as a talking head, or playing his trumpet on a rooftop. This way, he becomes a kind of totem, and we can apply whatever meaning we wish. That’s partly why his critics have been so hard on Baker, dismissing his fans as being only interested in his image, whether the young pretty boy or the decrepit druggie, and that they’re less interested in jazz music than in a bleak story. But Weber knows Baker is a symbol of something -- squandered chances,  the forgotten artist crying to be heard -- and lets him be a symbol. Meanwhile, the ex-wives drill him from the sidelines.
     The women interviewed all tell a similar story – Baker was lovely at first, but eventually turned into a rat.  Even his mother’s interview follows the pattern, as she happily recalls the precocious little boy, an infant really, who would put his ear next the family radio and memorize songs. Then Weber asks if she’s disappointed in how her son turned out. “Let’s not go into that,” she says, but the old woman’s face says everything.
     Even the famous story of how Baker lost his teeth gets a workover – he claims he was beaten up by “five black guys” who were trying to rob  him, while one of his exes, jazz singer Ruth Young, believes the attackers were probably paid to punch him out.
     Though they never married, Young shared a decade with Baker. The sort of brassy broad that can only be found in jazz circles, she recalls Baker as a “neurotic idiot,” and admonishes herself for buying into a “mystique that isn’t necessarily real.” She mocks his myth, joking about how he couldn’t dress himself or comb his hair, and how she used to help glue his teeth back into his head. But she’s more articulate than anyone else in the movie when it comes to distilling her relationship with Baker to its essence. “It would be like living with Picasso,” she says, “the closest I could get to greatness." Put that way, one can almost understand why anyone would put up with such a slimy character, or why anyone would care that he got lost.





Wednesday, April 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Caped Crusade...


THE SURVIVAL OF THE DARK KNIGHT
So is he queer or what?
By Don Stradley


Batman comes and goes – a menacing figure of the night, brought forth by National Comics as America was plodding from the Great Depression into WW2, forced to endure the sci-fi ‘50s and Pop Art ‘60s, the BAM! POW! of TV, and then four decades of rebirths, rehashes, revamps and requiems – and I’ve remained immune. This isn’t meant to flatter myself, for while I’ve never been sucked into the one era or another of Batmania, there’ve certainly been other questionable pursuits to eat my time, from Laverne & Shirley reruns on MeTV to old wrestling matches on YouTube. Still, I’ve often admired Adam West’s stuntman for throwing those up from the floor haymakers that could rattle the teeth of any costumed scoundrel. Hence, I was intrigued by Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, a thoughtful look at the long history of Batman, though I wish he’d spent more time on Lewis Wilson, the actor who first donned the ears for a 15-chapter Columbia serial in 1943, a showcase that, pound for pound, kicks as much ass as any Batman incarnation since, including Christopher Nolan’s glum trilogy.

Early in The Caped Crusade we learn about the prickly comic book readers and the bitter outrage they’ve unleashed on anyone who dared portray Batman as anything but a masked hammerhead. The Bat-loyalists, as devoted as Trekkies but even more self-righteous, have traditionally greeted any new development, whether in the comic mags or the movies, with a great weeping and gnashing of teeth, rising as one to wail: That’s not our Batman!  What they’ve wanted, it seems, is Taxi Driver with a Bat signal, with Travis Bickle putting aside his .44 mag in favor of his Batarang. Batman, you see, can never use a gun, which in itself is a childlike fantasy – guns are for adults, after all, so children dream of outsmarting the elders with the gadgets you might find on Batman’s utility belt. Dark Knight my ass. Batman is just a big rich kid with cool stuff and a magic belt. And his parents aren’t around to tell him what to do!

The story Weldon tells is one of endurance, as Batman begins as a garden variety mystery man, “a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art,” patched together from elements of The Shadow, Zorro, and Lee Falk’s Phantom, only to spend many years inhaling the fumes of the far more popular Superman. As of 2016, Batman has overtaken “his older jock brother” and stands supreme, a turnabout akin to Donald Duck overtaking Mickey Mouse and becoming the new face of Disney. Batman’s current status is quite an achievement considering the character had come close to being discontinued on numerous occasions due to poor sales, not to mention the ling running joke that he’s a homosexual. (For the record, a few DC writers have said yes, totally. Others say he's simply too absorbed with fighting crime to think about women.)  To the pleasure of his fans, Batman is finally taken seriously. But with a LEGO movie on the way, and the immensely unlikable Ben Affleck now wearing the cape, this could change faster than you can say “Joel Schumacher.” (He was the director who put nipples on Val Kilmer’s Bat suit, which set the fans moaning for years at the indignity. I thought the nipples should have been used as radio dials.)

Even if you haven’t dug into the Batman comics lately, and aren't aware of such events as Batman drowning at the bottom of Gotham River, or that there was once a phone-in vote to have Robin killed off, you can fill in the gaps thanks to Weldon’s thorough research and his entertaining style. I loved his comments on artist Jim Lee’s women, “with their ability to risk spinal torsion by simultaneously aiming the breasts and buttocks at the reader,” and the way he mocks the low budget look of the TV Batman’s third season, when it appeared as if the Joker “had chosen to hide out in a community theater production of The Fantasticks.” At times, though, Weldon works too hard. His description of McDonald’s as “the corporation whose spokesclown pimped saturated fat to children like a whimsical chalk-faced avatar of arteriosclerosis,” takes too many corners to make a belabored point. Still, Weldon’s passages about Batman’s mystique are inspired, such as this bit about, of all things, Batman’s cape: “It will become a major character, a silent but expressive narrator who guides the reader’s eye and infuses the action with layers of meaning, evoking a moldering grave shroud, or the leathery wings of a demon, or the fierce and howling winds of Aeolus.”

Nice.

Where Weldon stumbles is with his depiction of Batman fandom. By labeling the readers as “nerds” rather than, say, enthusiasts, or fanboys, he renders them as a pimply-faced Greek chorus of whiners. Reading the word “nerd” two or three times per page may be funny for a while, but it ultimately has a dehumanizing effect. The ongoing battle between Time Warner’s clueless toy merchants and the army of hardcore readers carrying the torch for their masked hero isn’t as compelling as it could’ve been, for Weldon can’t elevate these permanent cases of arrested development into anything more than faceless grumblers, impossible to please mopes pining for a Batman of their own, with no Robin to get in the way, with no sunlight to break up the darkness they perceive as making Batman more suitable for adult readers, when any real adult looking for dark literature would simply forget the comics and read some Dostoyevsky.

 

Friday, April 15, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: POPism, THE WARHOL SIXTIES...


WHEN 15 MINUTES STRETCHES OUT FOR A HALF CENTURY
Uh...yes...uh...no...
by Don Stradley


In an unnerving premonition of his own death, Andy Warhol devoted a few paragraphs of his memoirs to a friend who’d received poor medical care and died right in his hospital bed. To Warhol, this was a nightmarish way to go; he imagined the horror of being “taken to the wrong hospital, or if you happened to get the wrong doctor at the right hospital.” Popism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol’s bright, absorbing look back at the Pop Art decade and his place in it, was published in 1980, seven years before his own death. Warhol would die after a simple gallbladder operation because floor nurses failed to look in on him (he’d been flooded with fluids which resulted in heart failure). Maybe Warhol jinxed himself with his fear of hospitals. He was, after all, adept at predicting how things would happen with art, film, and celebrity culture. Why not, in the manner of an amphetamine-loaded, porn-loving Nostradamus, his own demise?

Warhol chroniclers have harped on his alleged fascination with death, doting like WW2 code-breakers on his macabre silkscreens of electric chairs, and car crashes, but the Warhol who shared his memories of the 1960s was far less consumed with death than, say, parties, and specifically, the famous people who occupied couch space at these parties. “Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into,” he writes at one point, gushing about a modest gathering thrown by Dennis Hopper as “the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.” One would think Warhol’s unlikely jump from being a commercial illustrator to one of the top names in American art would provide him with moments of greater significance, like when six of his self-portraits were featured in the U.S. Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, but no, Warhol was more thrilled by witnessing Judy Garland get pissed off at Tennessee Williams. Warhol’s hero, Picasso, didn’t hang with movie stars, so in that regard, Andy had Pablo pinned to the mat. 

If his fetish for fame has sometimes obscured his actual talents, Popism clears up a few things about Warhol. He was easily embarrassed and developed a quick, dismissive way to deal with the press, letting his friends pretend to be him for telephone interviews, or having Edie Sedgwick answer questions for him on talk shows. If Warhol was fascinated by the fame of others, he found his own notoriety rather ridiculous. He explains that much of modern art is a game, anyway,  less about having the right style than having the right rich people to buy your stuff, and that remaining aloof allowed other people to instill his work – and his entire existence - with meanings he’d likely never considered. In Popism, he’s not out to ascribe meaning to his paintings; he’s more concerned with what the girls were wearing in those years, how they painted their eyelashes, or how rich people spent their money. 

The strangest thing about Popism is that, while many of Warhol’s stories are amusing,  none are especially dramatic. Except for his detailed account of being shot by Valarie Solanis,  the book is surprisingly light and airy. There was a casualness to Warhol – if a painting of his was accidently destroyed, he’d simply create another one - and this breezy attitude is what makes the book so readable. He offers some interesting insights about art, but doesn’t dwell on any theories, keeping his views as streamlined as one of his Coke bottle paintings. The closest he comes to revealing any emotion is when he addresses the accusation that he was somehow responsible for the number of people in his circle who died young. The death of dancer Freddie Herko, who pirouetted out “his window with a leap so huge that he was carried halfway down the block onto Cornelia Street five stories below,” seems to have affected Warhol the most. Still, Warhol suggests the people around him who ended badly were damaged when he met them. “It wasn’t like someone was issuing me newborn babies with good chemicals and letting me raise them,” he writes. But he also admits that he thrived in the company of whack jobs, and proudly states, “we were all odds-and-ends misfits, somehow misfitting together.” He recalls Viva and Candy and the rest of the Factory regulars with what seems like real affection, and appears legitimately disappointed that none became mainstream film stars, though their spirit appears to live on in this current era of “YouTube sensations” and “reality TV celebrities,” minus the Factory crowd’s sense of melancholy and danger. Late in the book, Warhol suggests that many of his friends had probably lied about their pasts to make themselves more attractive to him; the cocktail of lies, drugs, and general mental unbalance created a kind of living theater that could only end tragically, despite the fun had by all. 

Today, of course, no artist could write a nearly 400 page memoir and expect it to sell five copies, not when most contemporary artwork ends up in dull corporate offices,  hanging innocuously in conference rooms like the visual equivalent of piped in “muzak.”  Warhol would be nearly 90 now, and probably bored by the culture he’d helped shape. Not only are contemporary celebs badly dressed and void of glamor, but the art world suffers from neglect, with no one looking in on it.

 

 

Friday, April 8, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: THE GRAND TOUR...


HONKY-TONK MAN
Just don’t call him Possum…
By Don Stradley


My George Jones fantasy: He and Tammy Wynette are in their primes right now, and are given their own reality show, produced by Ryan Seacrest and Eliot Goldberg, the same creeps who produced Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The first episode has George and Tammy arguing over the music to be used for their doorbell: George wants ‘White Lightning’; Tammy wants ‘Stand By Your Man.’ This is crewcut George, the one who strutted like a bantam rooster in his sparkly Nudie suits. Tammy’s in her white go-go boots phase, hotter than a Jimmy Dean sausage. George gets tired of arguing and disappears for several days. He returns home drunk, and I mean George Jones drunk. He sees the camera crew at the house, and forgets that he’s part of a reality show. Thinking these guys are part of a conspiracy, he grabs his favorite pistol, a Colt .45 with pearl grips given to him by Waylon Jennings, and commences to fire. Seacrest and Goldberg are killed. George drives away from the carnage humming ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ Now, that’s a program I’d get behind.

According to Rich Kienzle’s The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones, my reveries aren’t entirely off base. Jones, who died in 2013 at 81, rivaled The Who when it came to trashing a hotel room, and his countless public embarrassments would’ve impressed Charlie Sheen. Perhaps the culmination was  Jones’ infamous 1982 cocaine bust, which made National Enquirer type headlines and inspired columnist Orley Hood to peg the singer as “a moral pauper who is perpetually ashamed of himself.” The gears of the story were classic enough:  a drunk and abusive daddy and a God-fearing mama gave birth to a scrappy kid who left Saratoga, Texas for Nashville and became the master of maudlin country ballads. His songs, a veritable “punch list of misery,” struck a chord with listeners and became hits on southern radio stations and jukeboxes. At one point he was recording five albums per year. He also had a taste for guns and alcohol. Bad luck followed him, too. An unfortunate woman left the Jones tour bus one fateful night and ended up strangled by a drifter. If Jones had a family crest, it’d be a bullet hole in a rusted bumper. 

It’s not quite the tale of a typical C&W rowdy, because Jones wasn’t a particularly rebellious character. He certainly wasn’t part of the 1970s ‘outlaw country’ trend, and unlike Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, Jones didn’t court listeners outside of the country crowd (save for a pair of awkward duets with Gene Pitney back in the ‘60s.). He was in the Hank Williams tradition, so much so that he sometimes drove around with a cardboard cutout of Hank in the passenger seat. Of course, those were the dark days, a time when one friend called Jones “so slobbering drunk that he didn’t know if he was Roy Acuff or Jesus Christ.” But nothing in Kienzle’s book suggests Jones drank because it was party time. Jones, it seems, was trying to do himself in. “I’ve been running from something all my life,” Jones once said in a rare moment of reflection. “But I can’t figure out what.” One acquaintance simply described Jones as “ill-prepared for fame.”

A major country star such as Jones deserves a bio, and Kienzle’s will do nicely. The early years are especially interesting, as  Jones fights his way into the music business with the tenacity of an alley cat, doing gigs on borrowed guitars and trying to find his real voice,  while the final chapters, as sickly old George watches his beloved genre become overrun by idiots who couldn’t make it in a Styx cover band, are suitably moving. The book sags in the middle, though, with its logjam of recording dates, chart placements, and battles with record labels. Kienzle is a veteran country music writer and historian, but his love of facts and dates creates a bottleneck that prevents the real story from being told. By the 20th time Kienzle shares the history of some obscure piano player, you’re ready to cry uncle. And despite becoming familiar with his lengthy rap sheet, I’m still not sure I know much about Jones. From what I can tell, he was a human cypher, and the despair of broken hearted people everywhere seemed to blow through him on the winds of country music. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Better to stay out of George Jones’ head. Few could enter that cave of torment and nameless hurts, and come out alive.

 

Friday, April 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: THE STORIES OF BREECE D'J PANCAKE


SOUTHERN MAN
The myth and legend of a dead writer rolls on…
By Don Stradley


Breece D’J Pancake was gone before we knew him  -- just as the 26-year-old had attracted the sort of success that came to only a handful of short fiction writers in the 1980s,  he took a shotgun and blew his brains out -- which gave his work an aura of darkness and misery. It’s with some regret that I’ve never been entirely engaged by his stories. When I first encountered his writing, recommended by a friend from Amherst who was convinced he’d discovered the next big thing (probably not long after the poor guy’s bloody hair had been scraped from the walls of his living room), I was still feeling my way through Kerouac and Nathanael West. I had pounds of Williams, Capote, O’Connor, O’Neill, and McCullers to eat through. True, I appreciated Pancake, admired his craftsmanship, but was perfectly fine without his bitter characters and their deep-fried ennui. 

The Pancake stories (reissued recently in both Vintage paperback and Kindle editions as Trilobites and Other Stories) resonated with his admirers, I think, because Pancake came from a tradition of Southern writers, and slathered his fiction with such bleakness that it demanded to be noticed, like the one party guest who sits in a corner scowling. We learn from James Alan McPherson’s forward that Pancake was “a lonely and melancholy man,” and then, in a snippet from a letter written by Pancake’s mother, we learn that “God called him home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope.” His style was good ol’ boy smarm as a mask for depression, where coal miners mourned their busted love lives, and able-bodied young men accepted a future of poverty. Ex-girlfriends lurk like phantoms at the borders of the stories, dropping into town unexpectedly, or waiting tables at the town’s only diner. You want coffee and a sammich? You’ll be served by an ex-girlfriend whose ass looks better than you remember. Pancake’s men exist solely to endure their surroundings and cough up coal dust. 

McPherson, who taught at the University of Virginia where Pancake toiled as a student teacher, turns his forward into a hagiographic  homage, complete with references to James Dean and Phil Ochs and Faulkner, and an ode to the “winding mountain roads” of Pancake’s home state of West Virginia, where the hollows served as graveyards for “abandoned cars and stoves and refrigerators.” McPherson depicted Pancake as a sort of mercurial, holy idiot: “He would get into fights in lower-class bars on the outskirts of Charlottesville,” McPherson wrote of his mysterious old pal, “then return to the city to show off his scars.” While McPherson’s intro focused on Breece the sensitive battler, author John Casey, also a teacher at U of V, supplied an equally melodramatic afterward. Shortly after Pancake’s suicide, Casey claimed he was suddenly overcome by the taste of metal in his mouth, the unmistakable flavor of a gun barrel, as if Pancake were sharing his final moments from beyond eternity. Who needs a press release when the friends you leave behind are such brazen idol makers? 

Could this brawling, boozing, haunter from the hollows tell a story? The dozen pieces he wrote certainly fall short of The New York Times review where Joyce Carol Oates raved about Pancake and claimed  it was “tempting to compare his debut to Hemingway’s.” It must’ve been the shotgun. Still, Pancake’s fiction has been translated into German and Spanish, and collected and recycled into various anthologies, including one called Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader. At least part of the reason for Pancake’s enduring legend is the very American fear that writing fiction is a somehow unmanly pursuit. There’s nothing better than a two-fisted, suicidal author to make those effete types chained to the radiators of academia feel better about themselves.

The stories aren’t bad -- there are plenty of volatile characters trying to alleviate their anxiety with alcohol, violence, and aimless sex -- and Pancake liked to waylay readers with sudden displays of nastiness, like a detailed description of an animal being gutted, or how, in a story called ‘The Scrapper’, a street fight comes to a halt so a man can spit out the tip of his tongue. But for all of Pancake’s rawness, his writing feels airless, as if each paragraph had been squeezed of life and tailored to the specifications of some angry anal retentive. This meticulous attention to form gives each story a sort of bare-knuckled tautness, but there’s also a cookie cutter feel to Pancake’s writing; read a few of his tales, and you can just about predict when a character will spit or shit. They all seem to end with a guy sitting in his truck, staring into the rain, or standing next to the steaming entrails of a freshly killed possum, wondering when daylight will come. Pancake’s stories rarely made it to morning.

I used to loan out my copy of Pancake’s book. My thinking was that someone else might like it more than I did. In fact, one friend was so fond of  Pancake’s most lighthearted tale, ‘The Salvation of Me,’  that she contacted Pancake’s mother about the possibility of using it as the basis of a short film. The mother wrote back, saying that all of her son’s work had been grabbed up by Hollywood people for potential movie treatments. As far as I know, nothing of Pancake’s ever made it to the screen. Just as well. Pancake’s stories aren’t especially cinematic. Having now read them a second time, they’re the prose equivalent of those photographic portraits from the 1800s where no one smiled.