Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Last Thoughts on Davy Jones, 1945 – 2012.

Davy Jones is dead.

That makes him the first Monkee dead, which is a bit surreal – especially since the smart money was always on Peter.

Davy was once and always “The Cute One,” the one who most drew you into the group when you were a kid, only to become the one you most reviled once you decided the Monkees were a sham.

I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV until they started rerunning The Monkees (they pioneered the music video, remember?!) and, like most kids, I was instantly hooked. Also like most kids, Davy was my favorite. Perhaps it was because he was the cutest, or the shortest, or the most innocent (Mickey was frantic in a way that was often over your head, Mike was the hipster’s cult-hero-in-waiting, and Peter was the one who never quite fit in that nobody seemed to favor), but Davy was always the most kid-like and therefore the easiest for a kid to like; when I took the opening theme song at its word and believed that the Monkees would maybe come to my town (I always pictured them coming straight to my house and ringing my doorbell – I was a very smart kid), it was Davy who I most looked forward to hanging out with.

But then, somewhere down the line, as what happens to every young Monkees fan, you run into someone who tells you that the Monkees were not a real band and did not play their own instruments. Instantly, as the Monkees fall apart in your psyche, it’s Davy who’s at the epicenter of it all. Given his cute looks and nondescript role in the band, Davy smacks of the industry suits’ intent to get a pretty teen idol in front no matter what, even if it turned out that the drummer had the better voice for most of the songs, and Davy was often left stranded in front banging away on his tambourine and maracas while singing backup. His role was the equivalent of the guitarist’s girlfriend, or worse yet, the girl the guitarist felt like he needed to string along. Even in the Archies, Veronica played the electric piano; it was Betty who was left uselessly in front, hitting the tambourine.

Davy was an outsider in an outsider’s culture. He was a Brit amongst Americans, a song-and-dance man amongst rockers. Tellingly, his first appearance on national television was on the Beatles’ legendary American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, in which Davy appeared later on in the episode as the Artful Dodger in a UK production of Oliver Twist. When the industry suits set out to create the Monkees two years later, it was Davy, with his Paul McCartney-esque cute looks and British Invasion accent, who was the clearest link between the Monkees and the Beatles.

Furthermore, given his stage background, Davy always seemed the most game to go along with whatever the industry suits wanted. When producer Don Kirshner promised Neil Diamond the A-side of the Monkees’ next single after his “I’m a Believer” was a #1 hit, it was Davy who they brought in to sing it, and released “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” as a single without the group’s consent. (The Monkees wanted the Mike-penned, Micky-sung “Girl That I Knew Somewhere” as the next single; it eventually became the single’s B-side.)

This move, coupled with Kirsher releasing the Monkees’ second album, More of the Monkees, without any input from the band (they were especially pissed about the cover shot used, which was from a photo shoot advertising JC Penny shirts), brought things in Monkeedom to a head. When Kirsher met with the group to award them big checks for their success, he was blindsided to have the group turn on him, with Mike infamously punching a hole through the wall and threatening to Kirsher that it could have been his face. When Kirshner retold the story years later, he was quick to add that the only Monkee to ever give him any thanks or appreciation in all of this was Davy.

Yes, Davy was in the most complicated spot of the Monkees, carving out an existence suspended between the independence his bandmates sought and the strings that kept them tied to the industry suits who ultimately controlled them. I give Davy credit though, for as much as he was able to understand and work with the industry suits in a way his bandmates could not, he was also able to put his all into the band’s increasingly independent projects. If you watch their ill-fated movie Head, which you definitely should if you never have – it’s easily the most underrated rock and roll film of all-time and I’m not joking – you would never know that Davy was any less inclined than the others to piss all over their prefabricated image. He kisses Annette Funicello and takes a beating from Sonny Liston with the same earnestness as the others blow up Coke machines and get shot in war trenches, or freefall as pieces of dandruff from Victor Mature’s hair. (Hey, it was the ’60s, man.)

Perhaps for his ability to walk the line between the industry suits and his bandmates, fate rewarded Davy with the biggest gift of all: He got to sing the Monkees’ biggest and most natural hit, “Daydream Believer.” When you broke the song down, there was nothing in it that should have worked – it was a “hippie” song written by professional songwriters, an AM pop song with FM lyrics, a psychedelic excursion into showtune-style whimsy with strings – but then again, great pop music was never meant for the microscope. Yes, “Cheer up, sleepy Jean” probably doesn’t mean anything to a homecoming queen other than a weak fill for a stupid rhyme, but when you turned it up on a transistor radio or car stereo, “Daydream Believer” somehow all sounded just right.

And leading the way between rock and pop, industry and artistry, and success and failure was none other than Davy Jones, who sang the song with an earnestness that was void of any irony and filled with an understanding of the beauty of pop for pop’s sake.

Monday, February 27, 2012

An Open Letter to The Academy

Dear The Academy,

I enjoy a little Oscar curveball just as much as the next guy, so when what’s-his-name from The Artist beat out George Clooney and Brad Pitt for Best Actor, I was cool with it. Especially since it makes another year that Brad Pitt does not have an Oscar. (I don’t think that Brad Pitt should get any closer to an Oscar than picking up Angelina’s every time one of their 17 children knock it over, but I digress.) So thanks, I owe you one.

But then giving Meryl Streep Best Actress over Viola Davis?! That was simply too much. I think this will go down as a colossal mistake, on par with giving Crash Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain and Shakespeare in Love Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. Now granted, with totally awesome wins from non-shoe-ins like Sean Penn in Milk, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, and Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock, I’ve been working on borrowed time for quite a while now. But this is how you even the score? By taking it away from Viola Davis? I just can’t believe it.

It’s like, okay, I get it, Meryl Streep’s such a great actress she gives the illusion of always winning Oscars, even though everyone seems to forget that before last night she hadn’t won one for a film since 1982. Yes, that was already her second Oscar, but a lot has happened between now and 1982; I should know, my wife was born in 1982.

But even still, taking the Oscar from Viola Davis just feels like highway robbery. Davis had already proven her mesmerizing ability as an actress in Doubt, where she held her own against an amazing cast (including an actress named Meryl something-or-other), and earned her first Oscar nomination, even though she was in the film for like 53 seconds. In The Help, she proved that her work in Doubt was no fluke, as she held the entire film together with one of the richest performances I’ve seen in a long, long time.

So how are we gonna make this right, The Academy? I don’t want to see Viola Davis fall victim to the Fonda/Newman curse of getting a long-overdue “honorary” Oscar, only to win a competitive Oscar the following year for some third-rate tearjerker or stupid remake (I’m looking at you, On Golden Pond and The Color of Money).

But perhaps you, The Academy, are merely the symptom but not the disease. We all know that Meryl Streep will get nominated again and may even win again, especially since there are about 15 dialects out there she’s yet to tackle. But Viola Davis? Part of the reason why I feel so burned by her loss is that I’m not confident she will have a role as rich and captivating as her character in The Help; there are simply not enough parts for African American women to shine as she was able to. Perhaps the problem, then, is not just with The Academy, but rather the entire motion picture industry.

Still, The Academy, we do have to make sure Viola Davis gets an Oscar soon. Your history is littered by next-year default Oscars, from Jimmy Stewart (lost for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, won for The Philadelphia Story in 1940) on down through Renee Zellweger (lost for Chicago in 2002, won for Cold Mountain in 2003, in large part because Nicole Kidman was getting her next-year default in 2002 for The Hours after losing in 2001 for Moulin Rouge!, but I digress). So hopefully Viola Davis will be given her moment to shine, perhaps even as early as next year, although I’m not counting on it.

But let the record show I would do almost anything to make sure that Viola Davis wins an Oscar as soon as possible. I’d even let Brad Pitt win one.

Hugs & Kisses,


Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Only Girl I’ve Ever Loved: “Holland, 1945” & The Dead Girl Song Tradition

It sounds like a question from a demented Muppet parallel universe: Why are there so many songs about dead girls?

Its origins came down through those old, weird murder ballads like “Ommie Wise” and “Pretty Polly,” which were basically the dime-store pulp novel of the Middle Ages. Then you had country weepers like Roy Acuff’s “Jewel of Heaven” and hard blues like Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” which mixed together to make music like Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” a strange song about a lover’s corpse on a train that many believe is his finest record (I still hold that it’s “Long Black Limousine” – see earlier posting – about a lover’s corpse in an automobile). And then come those early-’60s death-as-kitsch car-crash records like J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss,” Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” and Jan & Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve.” Before long, there’s any number of Roy Orbison’s doom-struck ballads, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” and Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” depending on how far you were willing to take them.

From thereon, we get variations on a theme. The Beatles sing of departed spinsters (“Eleanor Rigby”) and their deceased mothers (“Julia,” “Let It Be”); Neil Young sings about killing the girl himself (“Down by the River”) and the Clash run with it a few years later (“I Fought the Law”); Elton John sings of a famous dead woman (“Candle in the Wind”); Jimi Hendrix sings about meeting a girl who is already dead and his plans to join her (“Angel”); Joy Division witness a girl die from a seizure (“She’s Lost Control”); the Smiths’ say goodbye to a girlfriend in a coma (“Girlfriend in a Coma”); and Don McLean finds a muse in a girl who sang the blues (“American Pie”).

And Randy Newman takes the cake as only he knows how, with a song about a girl getting killed by a beach-cleaning machine while still dressed in her high school graduation gown (“Lucinda”) – and somehow makes it work seamlessly.

The angst of the ’90s was the natural home for a revival in dead girl rock and roll, with the scene overrun by meekly raw singers spinning twisted tales of love and death. Kurt Cobain was the one who took it the farthest. Just consider “Heart Shaped Box,” inspired by a documentary about children who were dying of cancer. “I wish I could eat your cancer well,” indeed. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam unintentionally brought things full-circle when their cover of J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ “Last Kiss” was leaked onto the radio in 1999 and eventually hit #2 on the charts, the biggest hit of their career.

But one year before Pearl Jam’s biggest hit came what may be the ultimate dead girl rock and roll experience: Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterpiece, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Time is showing it to be one of the finest and most influential albums of its era, which is all the more surprising seeing as how it slipped by everyone unnoticed the first time around. I never appreciated how big it was until I took part in the Antifolk scene in the East Village, a scattershot array of ex-folkies, freaks, and tunesmiths if there ever was one. Aeroplane was a record we could all agree on – it’s the closest thing to how they say the old Harry Smith Anthology was for the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s. It was the oracle that everyone studied and knew inside and out.

But for all the things that Aeroplane is, was, and may be, there is one element that seems to get the most attention. One of the first things anyone learns about the record is that it is partly based on an apparent love for Anne Frank, but when you break down the actual album, there are only a few places that explicitly relate to her (three, by my count). It’s like pinball in the Who’s Tommy or Sgt. Pepper in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper – its greatest trick is making it seem as though it’s everywhere.

The first direct allusion to Anne Frank doesn’t come until the song at the center of the album’s running order, “Holland, 1945.” After an offhanded punk rock count-off, over-driven acoustic guitars and bashing drums swoop in to create a sea of fuzz and chaos that make way for singer Jeff Magnum’s brave, beautiful words, strung up and a bit nasal, with a bittersweet melody that slices through everything like a hot butter knife:

The only girl I’ve ever loved
Was born with roses in her eyes
But then they buried her alive
One evening, 1945
With just her sister at her side
And only weeks before the guns
All came and rained on everyone

These seven lines come and go pretty quickly and are followed by many partially-related and entirely unrelated lyrics, but the song could’ve ended just after these words and not lost any of its impact. The finality of it all is staggering; for all of the songs ever written about dead girls, these lines are the bluntest, the harshest, and, to my ears at least, the most intriguing. “Holland, 1945” is a song about falling in love with a girl who is already dead – in fact, a girl in large part famous for being dead – long before the singer was ever even born.

Everyone who went to grade school knows who Anne Frank is, and the song gets the outlines of the story right, even if she technically never was interned in Holland: After her family was found by the Gestapo in August 1944, Anne, her sister, and mother were all sent to Auschwitz in September, with Anne and her sister eventually relocating to Bergen-Belsen the following month. Both sisters died in a typhus epidemic that swept through the camp in March 1945, a few weeks before the British liberated the camp. Anne and her sister were buried in a mass grave.

What does it mean that we can take someone who lived before we were born and learn so much about them that we feel as though we know them better than many of the people that we are actually friends with? At its root, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is about grappling with intimacy, and what it means to become physically close to someone; nearly every song has at least a few uncomfortable lines about hands moving in mouths or fingers on the notches of the spine.

The Anne Frank theme seems to balance it all as an example of mental/emotional intimacy. Anne Frank lives through the words she wrote in her diary, words that she presumably did not expect to share with thousands of people for over a half-century after her death. And yet, by being dead, she pulls the rug out from under the album’s fascination with physicality because she is not here; we’re not even sure of the exact location of her burial ground.

“I want to get on; I can’t imagine that I would have to lead the same sort of life as Mummy and Mrs. Van Daan and all the women who do their work and are then forgotten,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary on April 4, 1944, less than a year before she would die. “I must have something besides a husband and children, something I can devote myself to! I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore, I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing, all that is in me.”

It may not be love in a romantic sense, but when Magnum sings that the only girl he ever loved “was born with roses in her eyes,” you believe him, just as you believe that she was buried alive just a few weeks before the guns rained down on everybody. His love for Anne Frank is a love of and for humanity. What Anne Frank was and what she has come to represent is what the singer loves, which may just be another way of saying he loves the braveness and the frailty in her that he can also perhaps see in himself.

If this is true, it brings the rock and roll tradition of dead girls to its farthest possible conclusion: The dead girl is not an external love who befell a tragic fate, but rather an internal feeling of love that was inside of us all along.

No wonder we’d want to keep white roses in their eyes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Top 5 Rock Songs About Presidents

To celebrate President’s Day this year, I thought it would be nice to do a little countdown of the greatest rock and roll songs about presidents.

I think the list speaks for itself, although I would like to make one honorable mention: The Showcase Showdown’s “Millard Fillmore, Last of the Whigs,” which was omitted because it was only ever available as a super-obscure indie 7” vinyl. And it lasts about a minute. And its words are mostly just the title repeated. But there’s something beautiful there, y’know? But I digress...

Okay, here’s the list, minus the Millard.

5. “He Was a Friend of Mine” by the Byrds (1965)

One of the earliest examples I’m aware of a rock and roll song dealing directly with a contemporary president, “He Was a Friend of Mine” appeared on the Byrds’ second album as a tribute to John F. Kennedy. Like so many early Byrds songs, the song came from Dylan, who used to sing it about Woody Guthrie. Although Dylan claimed to have written it himself, the song was found on an old record of prison recordings from which Dylan apparently lifted it; he then just changed around the words to relate to Woody Guthrie instead of a fellow inmate. The Byrds in turn pulled the same trick on Dylan, continuing the chain from an African American prisoner to a dustbowl refugee to a Catholic president (and if that’s not a statement about the breadth of America, I’ll never know it). The Byrds took Dylan’s sparse folk-picking arrangement and overhauled it, flattening its lopsided rhythm in favor of a rock and roll dirge in 4/4 time, with the group’s signature 12-string guitar and multi-layered harmonies filling the sound. Heard today, it’s a weird forbearer of the socially-conscious songs that would soon flood the rock scene, with the opening verse lamenting that “His killing had no purpose, no reason, or rhyme.” It wasn’t subtle, but hey, the ’60s stuff rarely was.

4. “James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants (1996)

There are two main types of presidential songs: Ones that are more general and subtle, and ones that are specific and hit you over the head with it. Perhaps the best example of the latter is “James K. Polk” by They Might Be Giants, those catchy-tune mavericks of the geeky vocal dexterity. In a post-alternative, post-ironic, and, perhaps most importantly, post-Schoolhouse Rocks era, leave it to They Might Be Giants to enshrine the person often cited as The Greatest President That You’ve Never Heard Of. And this song gives you a good overview on why: “He seized the whole southwest from Mexico/Made sure the tariffs fell/And made the English sell the Oregon territory/He built an independent treasury.” All of which was true. And, in a move that would seem almost unthinkable today: “Having done all this, he sought no second term.” Exhibiting humble restraint in the presidential arena? Why, that sounds even weirder than a They Might Be Giants song.

3. “Christ for President” by Billy Bragg and Wilco (1998)

Taken from a project in which a British protest singer and an American alt-country band teamed up to flesh out unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, “Christ for President” was one of the Wilco songs, with the group setting Guthrie’s words to a country stomp. Like so many great Woody Guthrie songs, its success lies in its simplicity. Guthrie was a master at taking a complicated situation and presenting it in a way that made sense and stuck in your head (this ability was one of the key things that a young Dylan picked up from listening to Guthrie). “Christ for President” tears down any lingering notions about a separation of church and state, although from John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon in 1630 on down through Ronald Reagan’s invoking of Winthrop’s sermon 250 years later, any separation in the American identity was always tentative at best. Guthrie was clearly having fun with the words and Wilco’s music reflects that, as they freely mix scripture, politics, and irony. “The only way we could ever beat those crooked politician men,” they sing at one point, “Is to run the money changers out of the temple [and] put the Carpenter in.” Here, here – you got my vote.

2. “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” by Gene Marshall (c. 1976)

In the 1970s, before people had access to better recording equipment on their iPhone than the Beatles ever had in the studio, there was the “song-poem” industry, in which you could send a poem and a set amount of money to a small recording studio and get back a record containing your poem as a finished song. Given how weird things can get when such variables are mixed (the general public, poets, musicians, and the 1970s), the song-poem industry was rediscovered by hipsters in the early ’00s and celebrated it as an outsider art. One of the songs that became the most well-known was the ridiculously wonderful “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” by Gene Marshall. It seems that someone lifted passages from Jimmy Carter’s early campaign autobiography, Why Not the Best?, and mailed it in to be set to music. The song-poem company who received it turned it into a funky groove: “Can our government be competent?/Jimmy Carter says yes, Jimmy Carter says yes/Can our government be honest?/Jimmy Carter says yes, Jimmy Carter says yes…” before clearing way for the singer to recite one part of an early Carter speech, which also was apparently sent in as part of the “poem.” Like the best song-poem music, it’s impossible to gage where the irony begins and the sincerity ends: Did the person who sent in the poem love Carter or do it as a joke? And does the band’s performance of the song further enhance or mask such intentions? If it is a joke, who is it a joke on? The person who wrote it? The people who made it into a song? The president? Maybe it the whole thing was done by Billy Carter on a drunken dare. We’ll probably never know, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

1. “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” by Randy Newman (1974)

Written in the same year as Watergate, included on an album that reaches back at least as far as the Coolidge administration, and based on a sentiment that could be about any current president, Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” is the greatest rock and roll song about presidents. As a nation built upon capitalism, the economy has always been a central concern in America, from the cyclical “panics” of the 1800s to the Great Depression of the 1900s to the Great Recession of the 2000s. Pick any day in American history, and chances are there’s someone somewhere feeling the pinch and making up their mind to sit down and write the president about it. It’s a reflection of fine line the president is supposed to walk: Down-to-earth enough to understand the issues of the working man, but lofty enough to command the respect needed to run the country. With all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the presidency, it’s the down-to-earth side that often gets neglected. This is what “Mr. President” is all about, and with Randy Newman writing and performing it, he pulls no punches. Built it around a bluesy swagger, the song states its problem simply (“We’ve taken all you given/But it’s gettin’ hard to make a livin’ ”), expects no mercy (“We’re not asking you to love us/You may place yourself high above us”), and cuts no slack (“Maybe you’ve cheated, maybe you’ve lied/Maybe you have finally lost your mind/Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself”). It is not so much a lament or a protest as it is a reminder of the bond between the President and Common Man that transcends all boundaries of partisanship and politics: Namely, that every American has a right, if not a duty, to be able to walk up to the president, speak their mind, and have the president listen to them. Any president who cannot make the effort to do so is not worthy of the people they serve.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Last Thoughts on Whitney Houston, 1963-2012.

When I worked at Borders, it used to be easy enough to find the pop artists: If they were white, they were in Pop/Rock and if they were African-American, they were in Soul/R&B. Yes, yes, the handful African-American rockers were in Pop/Rock – Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Little Richard – but very few others; even Sly & the Family Stone, who I’ve always thought of as a rock group rather than a soul group, were kept under Soul/R&B. And that’s the way it was always organized, aside from two major exceptions.

One exception was Michael Jackson. The other was Whitney Houston.

Now both of them, like the store that deemed them Pop/Rock, are gone. Both lived about a half-century, had a career of record-breaking success followed by a long spell in the wilderness, and died suddenly, with rumors of drug abuse.

With Michael Jackson, it was interesting because although nobody wanted to claim him for the 20 years or so before he died, everyone became an instant fan, not unlike how, once the New England Patriots got a decent coach and team, you couldn’t find someone who didn’t claim to have “always loved the Patriots,” even when they were the laughing-stock of Boston sports. Well, let me tell you, I lived in Boston in the 1980s, and nobody liked the Patriots. Not a single person. Let alone scores of them who now crowd the downtown bars and say they “always” had.

Same thing with Michael Jackson. When he died, everyone acted like it was 1985 and nothing had broken his success. This happened because Michael Jackson was one of those few performers – really, the only other ones being Elvis and the Beatles (although we’ll have to wait and see on Madonna, perhaps) – who was so big initially, it somehow all made sense when it snapped back in place with his death. I have a book about the Beatles with a quote that says something like, “Once you go up, you go down. Except for the Beatles. They could never really get down.” The next page then talks about “The Magical Mystery Tour.” Well, same thing with Michael Jackson. When you’re so huge and famous, you can’t ever really get down.

But Whitney Houston is a little more of an anomaly. She was so, so big, but then she totally disappeared in what was (at least to someone who was essentially a non-fan) a haze of drugs, confusion, and Bobby Brown. Unlike Michael Jackson (and, I would imagine, what it was like for periods of Elvis’s career), she wasn’t always just there. I remember looking at her tag in the Pop/Rock section in the early-’00s at Borders and thinking “Huh,” as though it was a relic from a lost era, like say, 1992.

That was the year that Whitney (and she was at that one-name level of fame, like Michael, Madonna, Liz, or, ick, Kim?) was at her peak, when “I Will Always Love You” became the biggest hit ever in the history of recorded humanity and even back before they knew how to write. You could not escape that song. MTV and VH1 had it on all the time. Radios played it instead of commercials. Stores that didn’t even sell music had the single (remember singles?!) in cashier lines. Uncreative popular girls used it at the end of stupid sketches for class or some assignment where you have to use a song to help tell a story, or something. And then of course there was that guy in England who successfully sued a lady for being a public nuisance when she played the song repeatedly at full blast.

Well, after living through the song’s reign (as a 12-year-old adolescent, nonetheless), I felt like we should all be able to issue public nuisance violations because the song was at full blast everywhere. It won all those Grammys. In fact, it single-handedly made me lose all faith in the Grammys (as a 13-year-old adolescent, nonetheless) when The Bodyguard Soundtrack beat out R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People for Best Album.

One good thing that came out of the Bodyguard-era of Whitney Houston’s career is that it made me appreciate how good her earlier music was. That first solo record, which became something like the best-selling solo record since the invention of solo performers and maybe even a few cave-eras before that, had “How Will I Know,” and other ’80s pop gems I had never fully appreciated; music that was at least as good as Madonna’s “Borderline” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which is pretty damn good.

But somewhere in the mid-’90s we lose the trail, and Whitney Houston sort of vanishes. She doesn’t make any of those Rolling Stone 500 lists and she is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She tried to make that comeback record a few years ago, but the only reason I remember is because there was a huge poster of it that I saw every time I went into J&R Records in downtown Manhattan to buy more of those 2009 Beatles remasters. She was something rare in the pop world: A living-legend who was omnipresent, but then turned into a phantom as though she had never been there.

So I’m going to get up and go to work tomorrow and try to dig out all of the Whitney Houston product I can, just like I did for Etta James, just like I did for Amy Winehouse, and just like I did for Michael Jackson, not because I’m an unsentimental capitalist bastard but because I know that everyone is going to come in looking for it and it’s simply easier to reach in front of you to get something than it is to keep walking across the room.

And I know where I’ll find it, too. Barnes & Noble keeps her in the Soul department.

Only Michael Jackson is in Pop/Rock.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The 3 Biggest Myths About the Oscars

It’s the Oscar season again the movie industry is getting swept up in its fever. And why shouldn’t they? There is a mystique about the Oscar that has always put it ahead of the Emmy and the Grammy, in part because it is older, but also in part because the idea of the movies is bigger than the idea of television or record albums.

Because of this, the Oscars seem to get a free pass in collective memory as people just assume that its reputation is borne out by its record. But is it?

In this spirit, I would like to submit three of the biggest myths about the Oscars.

1. Best Picture always goes to a classic. Luckily, for the Academy, they have gotten it right enough times to create the illusion of the Best Picture winners being a definitive shortlist for the canon of film: Casablanca (1943), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Godfather (1972) have all won the prestigious award. But there are several problems. First of all, there are some simply bad films that have won Best Picture. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is generally considered the worst (and it beat out High Noon to get it, much to the chagrin of every critic ever), but not that far behind it are The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), and (for many, myself included) Crash (2005). Cavalcade (1932/33) is so bad, it’s never been readily available on DVD, not that anyone seems to notice. Which calls to mind all of the Best Picture winners that leave no real mark in the collective memory, such as The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marty (1955) Tom Jones (1963), and Ordinary People (1980), which are the Best Picture equivalent of Millard Fillmore. Finally, there are the films that are good-to-great but beat out bigger/better classics to get there. The most infamous example of this is How Green Was My Valley (1941), which beat out Citizen Kane, which is generally considered the greatest film of all-time, ever. I’m told that Valley is actually pretty decent, but I’ll never know because I’ll never watch it out of principle.

2. Great actors are always rewarded for their signature roles. Once again, the Academy has gotten it right enough times for people to assume this is true: Gregory Peck won for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Bette Davis won for All About Eve (1950), Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump (1994), and Clark Gable won for…It Happened One Night (1934). Gable actually lost the Best Actor award for Gone With the Wind (1939) to Robert Dunat, who won for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Another person Dunat beat that year was Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which upset so many people that Stewart was given one of the first “consolation” Oscars the following year for Best Actor in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a film in which he received third billing. Stewart’s 1940 Best Actor win meant that he beat out Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (Fonda got his own consolation Oscar over 40 years later for On Golden Pond). To round out the list, Humphrey Bogart won for The African Queen (1950), not Casablanca (1943); Audrey Hepburn won for Roman Holiday (1953), not Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961); Sidney Poitier won for Lilies of the Field (1963), not In the Heat of the Night (1967); and John Wayne won for the original True Grit (1969), not The Searchers (1956), in part because The Searchers received no Academy Award nominations, period. But that’s a whole other list…

3. The Oscars always reward the best of the best. Sometimes the Academy Awards get things right. But for every other time, there’s always an honorary Oscar award. Cases in point: Alfred Hitchcock, generally considered the greatest director ever, never won a competitive Oscar, but was given an honorary one in 1968. Cary Grant, often considered the greatest actor ever, also never won a competitive Oscar, but was given an honorary one in 1970. And, as noted above, Citizen Kane, generally considered the greatest film ever, did not win Best Picture; any time you see print for it proclaiming it an “Oscar winner,” follow the fine print down to the bottom where you can see Orson Welles won for Best Original Screenplay (his only competitive Oscar – he got his honorary one the same year as Cary Grant). Other honorary-only winners include Charlie Chaplin (1927/28 and 1971), Greta Garbo (1954), Fred Astaire (1950), and Groucho Marx (1973). Judy Garland and Shirley Temple were both only given a now-defunct special “juvenile” award (a somewhat degrading pint-sized Oscar) for their work in 1940 and 1934, respectively. James Dean was nominated twice (posthumously) and lost both. Which leaves us with Marilyn Monroe, arguably the most iconic movie star of all-time, who was neither given nor even nominated for an Academy Award. Many believe she should have been nominated for Some Like It Hot, which many consider to be the greatest comedy ever, and features Monroe’s finest performance. Instead, the Oscar that year went to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top. Whom I’m sure we all remember just as well.