Gone to the Movies: “Suicide is Painless”


I caught part of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H on TCM the other night.  I’ve always been a huge fan of the TV show, and I really like the film–although I can see why some folks who saw the show first would be put off by it.  It’s black humor at its finest, with Altman’s signature style of vignettes and realistically overlapping chaos guiding the story of the lives of the personnel in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War.  (I will never call it a “police conflict” even though that was its official designation.)  The movie was much more like the book, which I also read.  The film and the book are vicious satires of war and social mores, although that was somewhat diluted by the charm of the series.

Here’s the context for the song: The 4077th’s dentist has decided to kill himself because he couldn’t, uh, perform one night.  The surgeons, including Hawkeye and Trapper John, indulge his moment of vanity by setting up a fake good-bye party and giving him a “black pill” that is probably nothing more than a mild sedative.  They all say their farewells while the song is sung (yeah, there are lyrics to go along with the ubiquitous melody).  Later, Hawkeye convinces a nurse who’s going home to have sex with the dentist as a way to get him back in the saddle.  This is apparently no hardship for anyone since the joke about the dentist is that he is, um, quite well-endowed.  From the recreation of The Last Supper at the beginning, to the “resurrection” via sex at the end, the scene is perfectly played.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the name of the dentist up until now.  If you’ve seen the movie, you already understand the double meaning of the song’s title.  (If you haven’t, well, you should.  It’s a great flick.)  The dentist’s nickname?  Painless.

Of course, the idea that “suicide is painless” is also ironic.  There is nothing painless about suicide, for anyone involved.  The somewhat nonsensical lyrics of the song and the smiling, easy to hum tune belie the reality of the act.  Johnny Mandel wrote the music, while Robert Altman’s son Mike wrote the lyrics, which the director reportedly wanted to be as dumb as possible  (Altman’s son was only fourteen when he co-wrote “Suicide is Painless” for his dad).  Of course, the whole scene in the movie is about the unreality of this particular act, highlighted by the selfishly trivial reasoning behind it.  The dumbness of the lyrics are actually a perfect fit for the dumbness of suicide.

David Letterman’s Last Show


Tonight is David Letterman’s final Late Night show.  Over the years, I’ve found him to be funny, exasperating, insightful, annoying, angry, caustic, generous, and very very entertaining.  The early years, when he was still on NBC, are some of the most creative television ever.  The main reason Letterman doesn’t make headlines the way he used to is because just about every other late night talk show is patterned after his.  (They all realized long ago that no one was ever going to come close to Johnny Carson’s greatness.  And Letterman was always edgier anyway.)

I loved the Top Ten lists.  I loved the wonderfully cantankerous give and take he had with his regular guests, many of them also his friends.  Dave wasn’t the best interviewer, but he would give his guests the room to fly or fail (both were equally entertaining).  His running bits and video remotes and all the other stuff will go down, rightfully, as one of the biggest influences on the late night comedy genre.  But one of my favorite parts of the show was also one of the least original.

Everybody on late night has a band (Craig Ferguson was the only exception I know of).  They introduce the star, lead into and out of commercial breaks, and serve as back-up for some of the musical guests.  There isn’t anything special about having a band, or that they’re a good group of musicians.  But Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band were special.  Please note that I didn’t call them the CBS Orchestra, because that name never really suited them; they were dangerous.  Not because there was any sense that they would suddenly go off the rails, but because they were the smartest, tightest, most versatile group of musicians ever to grace the small screen.  They could play anything with anyone, and they were Dave’s not-so-secret weapon.  Even if everything else on the show fell flat, you could count on Paul and the band to turn in a wicked good performance.  Monday night’s performance with the great Eddie Vedder should be proof enough of how terrific this group is.  I know they can all probably retire and live comfortably, but I hope they keep playing–preferably together.

B.B. King


Sorry I disappeared this week; I had a bunch of posts planned, but then I got lazy and distracted.  I just hate coming back with news like this.

I just heard on the radio that B.B. King has died, probably of complications related to his long-term struggles with diabetes.  I’d heard a couple of weeks ago that he was in hospice care, and my heart just sank.  When someone is in hospice, that’s pretty much it.  And while King lived and loved and made the world a little bit better for 89 years, it’s still pretty sad to lose his presence.

He was as big and outsized as his smile; you could see the power of his heart written on his face whenever that smile appeared.  He had so much talent and personality that it seemed impossible for anything to stop him.  I’m sure there will be much more eloquent accolades from better writers and critics than me.  I’m just a music fan, and I’m so grateful that B.B. King shared his music with us.

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues


I used to have this album.  I remember buying it, listening to it, and enjoying it.  But I didn’t listen to it all that often, I guess, and it got purged at some point.  Which was probably a mistake.  Because this really is a terrific album.

I first heard of Buddy Guy because of Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Guy was one of the players onstage with SRV during his final set on August 27, 1990.  He released Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues in 1991.  It was called a comeback of sorts, although Guy had been recording and performing since the 60s.  I guess it was something of a commercial comeback, since his name was back in the spotlight (a little bit, anyway) with the coverage surrounding SRV’s untimely death.  I know I bought it partly because I viewed it as something of a tribute to Stevie Ray, even though I knew better.

The other more tangible reason I bought it was Guy’s blistering version of “Mustang Sally,” which made it into MTV’s rotation.  All the tracks are great, but for a Blues novice like I was then (and still kind of am), “Mustang Sally” was probably the most accessible entry point.  Really, I should consider getting this one again.  It’s definitely worth the time.  Buddy Guy’s guitar is one of the best in the Blues.

Errol Brown


You might not know the name, but you sure do know the voice.

Come on.  You know how much you love this song.

Errol Brown was the lead singer for Hot Chocolate, an interracial Funk/R&B group who had a major hit with “You Sexy Thing” in the 70s.   (That’s him rockin’ that striped satin suit.)  Brown also co-wrote “Brother Louie,” which might be more informally known by its chorus “Louie, Louie, Louie.”  (It’s best known these days as the theme to Louis C.K.’s hit comedy on FX.)  But the Jamaican born singer-songwriter quit the music business when he got married and had a family.  I’ll bet he still sang all the time; you don’t have a voice like that and not love making music.  But he didn’t need the fame, which is something I greatly respect.  That kind of integrity will be sorely missed.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!


I don’t really have much to say today, but I didn’t want to slack off like I did yesterday, missing both Star Wars day and the anniversary of the Kent State Shootings (I still might post on that one).  Today’s holiday is pretty much an American invention, even if the day does have historical significance.  It’s still not Mexican Independence Day, though.

But if you feel so inclined, have a margarita or two and make tacos for dinner.  Celebrate because celebrating is fun.

Ben E. King


One of the great voices of Rock/Soul/R&B is silent.  Ben E. King died today at 76.

King was most famous for his solo hit, “Stand By Me,” and deservedly so.  It’s a fantastic song.  King imbued such incredible emotion into that plea for love and loyalty.  It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what’s going on, there’s so many emotions tumbling around each other.  There’s sadness and love and happiness, and who knows what else.  It is a song about triumph over fear, and it is one of the classics of popular music.

This video was made when “Stand By Me” became a hit for a second time with the 1986 movie of the same title.  Based on a Stephen King short story, the movie was a tender, funny, and sad coming of age story about four boys and their friendships.  I’d forgotten this video was made to support the film, but I’m sure I must have seen it.  (I have to admit that I’m a little partial to John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me,” but that’s mostly because I’m a little partial to John Lennon.)

My favorite Ben E. King performance was from when he was with the Drifters.  “Save the Last Dance for Me” is one of the sweetest and saddest love songs ever.  There’s such longing in King’s voice as he delivers the lines, “But don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be.  Save the last dance for me.”  I love that yearning ache he conveys so easily.

There seems to be an undercurrent of sadness to much of King’s oeuvre.  I’m not sure what kind of sadness he faced in his life, but I know there will be some tears shed for him today.  At least we still have these lovely performances to remember him by.