“This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”

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I recently got the chance to see the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense at a movie theater and I jumped at it, largely because I had never actually seen it from beginning to end.  Ten minutes here, five minutes there, I’d watched it in fits and starts and MTV clips for the last thirty odd years; it was high time I corrected this, as it turns out, grievous gap in my music & movie viewing.

Stop Making Sense was directed by the late Jonathan Demme and presents a show from the Heads’ tour to support their 1983 classic Speaking in Tongues.  What the film drove home to me more than anything else was how percussive and textural their music is.  I mean, yeah, you know that if you’ve ever heard a single Heads song, but I don’t think it ever really sunk in until I watched the concert in its entirety.  The Talking Heads managed this weird part Punk, part performance art, part tribal chant sound thanks to electronic keyboards and the crack rhythm team of Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz.  I don’t know how much their music comes from their marriage or how much of their marriage comes from their music, and I don’t care.  I just want to listen to them match themselves to each other’s heartbeats and David Byrne’s artistic vision.  Repeatedly.

The closest analogy I can come to in describing the Talking Heads’ sound is a Jackson Pollock painting.  Pollock’s drips and splashes and splatters build up, swirling around and on top of each other until it’s impossible to distinguish any one thread or color from the whole.  Looking at Pollock, I sometimes feel as if I could thrust my hand into the center of the painting, and come out with a tangled mass of color strings wrapped around it.  The Talking Heads weave sound the exact same way.  No one instrument is dominant over another, although each sound is distinct in and of itself.

The touring band they put together to help flesh out the studio sound was unbelievable.  These were crack musicians and singers who were far more than just hired guns; they were part of the group.  Which was vital to making the sound work.  They had to work together as seamlessly as the splatters in a Pollock.  And in the film, there is no preference of the “official” band members over the touring musicians.  They aren’t treated with less respect or as if their contributions were secondary to the success of the shows.  They’re just the other members of the band.

So you’d think for my song I’d choose the version of “This Must Be the Place” from the film.  And yeah, it is great, but when I was searching for the song on YouTube, I found the previously unknown to me music video for the album cut.   This video features the Talking Heads as configured for the Stop Making Sense tour.  They are together watching home movies of themselves, although they seem less like home movies and more like fantasy visions.  Or, if I can throw my own interpretation in, like some kind of ideal of who each person maybe feels they are.  The place where they feel most at home.

I chose this video because, like all the best songs and visual arts, it took me someplace I didn’t expect to go.  The video shows them all at home, together, the way a family would be (it even includes Weymouth and Franz’s toddler).  And the clip not only reminded me of a value I hold very dear, it also added a dimension to the song I hadn’t fully considered before.  “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” is a love song, pure and simple.  But it’s not just a romantic love song (although it obviously can be, especially if you listen to Shawn Colvin’s stellar version); it’s a love song about family–chosen family.  Because your romantic partner is nothing if not chosen family.  And so are your friends, and the people you work and create art with.  Love in all its glorious and myriad forms.  And all those glorious keyboards and percussion instruments and voices help demonstrate the beauty and complexity of love, the way it thrums and builds and grows until you can’t tell one from another.  Until you can’t imagine being anyplace else with anyone else doing anything else.  And it doesn’t matter what it looks like or who you share it with.  It’s perfect just as it is.

“A Real Indication”

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I just watched David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the 1992 prequel to his brilliant television show.  The film’s ostensible story is the telling of what happened in the days just before Laura Palmer’s death.  It’s real story is a human soul and mind in disintegration, of the hidden dangers lurking just beneath the seemingly normal exterior of the human psyche.  One of the things I enjoy most about Lynch’s work is their deliberate interiority, the way the line between what is real and imagined is blurred into non-existence.  It’s difficult to tell the difference between things that happen in the physical world, the so-called “real” world, and the things that happen in the minds of his characters.  It’s a very real possibility that there is no “real” world in Lynch’s films, just an extended dream sequence meant to represent the darkest thoughts, desires, and nightmares of human beings.  In short, this is one weird movie.

This song from the soundtrack of Fire Walk With Me is definitely cut from the same cloth as the film.  David Lynch wrote the lyrics, Angelo Badalamenti the music.  And like everything else Lynch has his hands on, there is a sense of unreality to this song.  It’s unmoored from context or genre.  Jazzy but not quite Jazz.  Spoken, not quite sung.  It reminds of Pere Ubu or the Residents.  Or Was Not Was’ great “Dad, I’m in Jail.”  I googled the name of the band listed as the performer, but there doesn’t seem to be any information on Thought Gang; most of the hits related to a novel of the same name by Tibor Fischer.  That seems appropriate.

It’s also totally appropriate that this clip simply uses the empty red room from Special Agent Dale Cooper’s dreams.  And Laura Palmer’s dreams.  And the Black Lodge.  You won’t know what any of this means unless you’ve seen Twin Peaks.  I’m not sure you’ll understand this post at all unless you’ve seen Twin Peaks.  I highly recommend both the TV show and the movie, and pretty much every other movie David Lynch has made.  He’s one of my favorite filmmakers, although I admit to not having seen several of his films; I think he’d like that.  I am positively vibrating in anticipation of the new Twin Peaks episodes premiering in May.  I’ve been watching whatever they air on Showtime in preparation for the return to one of my favorite imaginary places.  But then again, isn’t every place in Lynch’s world imaginary?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a sudden craving for cherry pie.

Alan Rickman

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I just wanted to take a little break from my Bowie-fest–and from music altogether–to pay tribute to one of my favorite actors.  Alan Rickman has died.  Like Bowie, he was 69 and the cause of death was cancer.

Rickman was one of those actors you had trouble not noticing.  He wasn’t the greatest looking guy on-screen, usually (although I found him immensely attractive), and at first he didn’t seem to be doing anything especially outstanding character-wise.  But you would find yourself paying more and more attention whenever he was in a scene, and all the little details he brought to his roles became such a magnificent performance that you couldn’t help but want more.  Like most Americans, my first exposure to him was as Hans Gruber in Die Hard.  I knew something was up when I found myself rooting for the villain halfway through the movie.  Rickman was a compelling actor and his presence will be sorely missed.

My favorite movie of his (one of my Top Ten all time movies) is Truly, Madly, Deeply with the equally wonderful Juliet Stevenson.  It is one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever seen.  (I’ve always assumed it inspired an insipid piece of garbage called Ghost, but don’t let that put you off from this one.)  I cry every time I see it, twice: once at the beginning and once at the end.  Big, awful, chest-wracking sobs.  This movie breaks my heart and puts it back together again.  And Alan Rickman as Jamie is just so glorious to watch.  Find this movie.  Watch it.  Right now.

Here’s a clip from near the end.  They are reciting a Pablo Neruda poem titled “The Dead Woman.”  Have a tissue handy.

Thank you, Alan, for making me cry and laugh and cringe at the movies for so long.

“Shelter from the Storm”

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I was watching St. Vincent last night (which I recommend you do, too), and after wiping away a few tears at the end, I watched Bill Murray sing along to “Shelter from the Storm” as the closing credits played.  It was the perfect ending.

It also made me think about what a gentle, generous, wistful song this is.  I remember hearing it on the late, great KMET very late one night when I couldn’t sleep.  There’s a darkness to this song, but that’s a hallmark of a great number of Bob Dylan’s best songs, and it seems right that I first heard it in the darkness.

What makes Dylan great is how he takes those dark feelings and gives them different shades and tones.  The darkness of “Shelter from the Storm” is completely different from the darkness of, say, “Idiot Wind” from the same album.  Like I said, it’s gentle and generous and wistful.  A love that is gone but left the singer so profoundly changed that forgetting it isn’t even an option.  It made him a better man.  And a worse man.  It’s complicated, full of shadows and ghosts.  The perfect late night song.

I usually like to post a live clip or something with some kind of visual interest.  But this song doesn’t need anything but your ears and your heart.  Enjoy it.

“Makin’ It”

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Yesterday I made it seem like David Naughton made a Dr. Pepper commercial, starred in An American Werewolf in London, and then pretty much dropped off the face of the Earth.  While that’s not entirely true (as evidenced by his IMDB page), he also never hit it all that big.

Among Naughton’s many gigs, he had his own sitcom, Makin’ It, which tried to capitalize on the popularity of Saturday Night Fever by making an already slight plot even more slight and trivial.  The show only lasted nine episodes in 1979, but the theme song was a hit long after the series was cancelled.  “Makin’ It” the song made it to number five on the charts, and was immortalized in one of my favorite Bill Murray movies, Meatballs (I have a very low tolerance for stupidity in films, but this one got to me before I developed that particular flaw).

I love this song.  It’s just a bit of Disco-Pop confection, but it satisfies my musical sweet tooth.  The video clip I chose is kind of shaky in a nausea or seizure producing way, but if you’re not prone to either of those things, you should watch it to see some of the charisma Naughton exhibited as a young actor.  He’s very watchable in a non-threatening, noncommittal sort of way; you can pretty much take or leave him, but you won’t be sorry if you stick around.  As a result of this song, I’ve always had a soft spot for Naughton.  Yes, An American Werewolf in London is a good movie, and he’s great in it, but I’ve never had any emotional attachment to it like I do for this musical blast from my past.

Halloween is Coming

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My time away from the blogosphere wasn’t all bad.  Yeah, a lot of crap went wrong, but most of it has been taken care of.  And lest the Universe be listening to my complaints, please remember that I am grateful for all the good that fills my life every day.

One good thing coming up is Josh Ritter on Wednesday at Fingerprints (expect at least a couple Ritter posts in the next few days).  And I made plans to enjoy one of my all-time favorite scary movies at a theater with the lovely and dear Rarasaur at the end of this month.

John Carpenter’s classic Halloween is being shown on movie screens again for one night only on October 29th, just two days before the titular holiday.  Luckily, one of the theaters showing it is literally just down the street from my home (I’m not kidding; I could walk there).  Now I love this movie.  Halloween is probably the best of the slasher flick subgenre of horror, mostly because it basically invented slasher flick.  Oversexed teenagers getting picked off one by one by some faceless, masked killer who seems unstoppable, only to be defeated by the one good girl of the bunch.  (Many years ago, I read a great article for a class about why the heroine of these movies was always sober and virginal, and usually given a boyish name like Max or Sam; if I ever remember where that was from, I’ll add a link.)  Michael Myers was one creepy villain, and the tension of this movie is almost unbearable.  Or it would be if it weren’t so much fun getting scared.  While others of this genre have degenerated into ever more blood and titillation, Halloween set the bar with style and spook.

Part of the film’s success, I think, rests on the limited budget.  John Carpenter made this independent masterpiece for $300,000 dollars.  Because of that, much of the awfulness is kept in the shadows or not shown at all, which heightens the terror Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie feels as she discovers all the bodies and is stalked by Michael.  And like any really good horror movie, it takes some time to build up, so you get to know the characters.  I will always contend that the movies that wait to scare the pants off you work better because you actually have a chance to care about what’s happening.

One other thing the tiny budget for this movie gives us is the unmistakable theme music.  Since he couldn’t afford a fancy score, Carpenter composed and performed the music himself.  It’s one of the greatest scary themes of all time, largely because of its simplicity.  There’s no over-embellishment or Pop star singing some dumb song.  It’s just that same intense series of notes, over and over, coming at you with the same relentlessness as Michael Myers.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Gone to the Movies: “Suicide is Painless”

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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.