I AM A MEDIA MAXI-PAD ABSORBING THE CONTINUAL FLOW OF POP CULTURE.
THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?
THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Directed by Robert Wise
Screenplay by Art Cohn based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Cinematography by Milton R. Krasner
Music by C. Bakaleinikoff
Produced by Richard Goldstein
Cast: Robert Ryan (Stoker), Audrey Totter (Julie), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Baylor (Tiger Nelson)
RKO Radio Pictures, 1949, 72 minutes, b&w
Caught this last night on Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials" - featuring TCM host Robert Osburne and his new film buff sidekick, Alec Baldwin - and couldn't stop watching it, even though I have the DVD buried somewhere in one of my DVD towers-o-Babel. Like Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Mike Figgis' Timecode (2000), it's one of those stories told in "real-time" narrative; that is, it's a 72-minute film recounting 72 minutes in the life of a lower-rung veteran boxer who's one punch away from some sort of resolution to his life of toil (which could be success, failure, retirement - or death). It plays out like a teleplay and its direction, editing, black-and-white cinematography, terse dialogue, and creative mis-en-scene are flawless.
My words can't do justice to just how great this Robert Wise film (his last for RKO) is, so I'll turn to one of my favorite film noir books, Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City:
Nicolas Christopher's essential film noir reader
The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise, is the only film noir I know of in which screenplay is adapted from a narrative poem (by James Moncure March). A surprising winner of the Critic's Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949, the film is a curiosity for a number of reasons. For one thing, like Rope, it is set in real time. Seventy-two minutes long, The Set-Up chronicles seventy-two minutes in the life of an aging journeyman fighter, played brilliantly by Robert Ryan. Like other noir icons, including Robert Mitchum, Jack Palance, John Huston, and Tom Neal, Ryan in his youth had boxed professionally. The film is set as far from the fast lane as one could get, in a hellish town called Paradise City, which is depicted solely through its shabby rooming houses, greasy spoons, dark filthy streets, and most important, through the warrens of a rundown, sweltering arena. The Set-Up is entirely nocturnal, much of the composition black on black and brilliantly cut (Wise was Orson Welles' editor on Citizen Kane). The film is hands down bleakest boxing film ever made - certainly the harshest ever to come out of Hollywood. Even the criminals are seedy, small-bore types who play viciously for penny-ante stakes - no big-time promoters here, with diamond rings, cashmere coats, and limousines. And the crowds in every way exceed the coarse, vulgar stock players we find in other boxing films; here they are outright sadistic, with a blood-lust verging on hysteria. When the hero's left eye is swollen shut by punches in the climatic fight, a blind man in the crowd shouts to the other boxer, "The other eye, Nelson, close the other eye!"
Ryan plays a fighter who wants only to make enough money in his last fight to open a beer hall or cigar stand" that's about as far as his dreams carry. Very soon it becomes clear that that is much too far. His manager has sold him out, accepting a bribe and promising that his fighter will take a dive; furthermore, the manager has so little faith in his fighter that he doesn't even inform him of the arrangement! And it happens that the latter, having promised his wife this will be his last fight - and thus his last shot at that cigar stand - takes a terrible beating in the early rounds, but fights his heart out, rallies, and emerges victorious. He's very pleased with himself, a terrible weight lifted from his shoulders - but, cruelly, in this universe only a few minutes - until he realizes that the double-crossed crooks are waiting on him. They've sealed off every exit in the arena. Trapped, he's taken refuge in the ring, of all places, and there's a memorable shot of him from on high in which we see the enforcers sauntering down ever aisle, converging on him. Aerially, the arena appears in the form of an infernal mandala that has come alive, spinning in black space. The thugs give him a terrible beating, breaking both his hands in he end and tossing him into the gutter in front of a dance hall called "Dreamland," where his wife finds him. he can never box again, and its doubtful he'll ever put enough money together for that cigar stand. Maybe he ought to feel lucky that he's not dead; maybe not.
And that's it. There's no saga of rise and fall here - no parabola of any kind - as in Champion and Body and Soul. For this boxer, we see only the tail end of a downward spiral that began a dozen years earlier, when he set out as a club fighter and never broke into the ranks of the contenders, much less the challengers, for a championship. The Set-Up is less a morality tale than a nihilistic sprint that skirts the abyss. It is worth noting that in this film the fighter is in no way a kid from the slums who craves sharp clothes and a snazzy pad, but rather a low-key working stiff - he has the demeanor of a weary plumber or handyman - faithful to his wife in her drab dresses, uncomplaining, a clock-puncher who happens to labor, and be exploited, in a sweaty arena rather than a sweatshop.
Oh, I'd be remiss not to mention a cameo in the arena audience by future Dennis the Menace TV dad "Henry Mitchell," Herbert Anderson. Other cast highlights for me were seeing the great Audrey Totter playing a nice gal (she wasn't always a femme fatale!) and, Dwight Martin as the uncredited "Happy Glutton" who consumes hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, beer, and soda throughout the the climactic fight. And I wonder who the blood-lusting dame was who shouted out "Moider him!" in the fight crowd? What a sports fan! (In fact, The Set-Up's cast of "characters" is the kind of "lively" audience I tend to dread at my film screenings!)
Film Poetry: James Moncure March and the Roots of "The Set-Up"
Friday, August 13, 2010
Haack: The King of Techno
directed by Philip Anagnos
(USA, 2004, 56 minutes)
I only recently discovered electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack - thanks to a co-worker who alerted me to the fact that our library owned a number of his childrens albums in our "best-kept-secret" vault of phonograph records. Impressed by what I heard, I subsequently found a CD of his in a used record store (see my Hush Little Robot review), then found a used copy of an excellent 2005 tribute album to the man called Dimension Mix, that featured Beck, Stereolab, Fantastic Plastic Machine and others of that electronica ilk. I still know nothing about the man, other than he was Canadian who made electronic children's records (think Hap Palmer meets Kraftwerk), had a regretable name for a musician (a Haack musician?), invented/built/& played his own electronic musical instruments, and passed away in 1988. Oh, and he was apparently a product of his peace-love-and-Peyote-popping Hippy-in-the-'60s times, calling his friends "Starchildren" and confessing that while he didn't mind fame in the here-and-now, he was ultimately more interested in obtaining a "telepathic following." Tubular, baby!
But the missing link for me was finding a book or documentary something more in-depth than a mere Wikipedia entry. I found it - well, sort of - in the form of this so-so documentary by a director who admits he's not a documentary filmmaker. That said, this is, however, the only game in town as far as a visual record of electronic music pioneer Bruce Haack. Highlights are two TV appearances - on Gary Moore's What's My Line and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood - intersperced, unfortunately, with uninformative and unimpressive clips of no-name hipster musicians and DJs who smugly celebrate their discovery of Haack without any technical or historical insight beyond, "He was like, a genius man, I mean he was on Mr. Rogers." As they show off their aviator shades, tattoos, retro-psychedelic shirts, trendy facial hair-and-beard combos, and lava lamps, one never gets beyond the "I discovered Haack at at used record store" or "Friends turned me on to his tapes" insights. Only his fellow Juillard School of Music classmate, Ted "Praxiteles" Pandel, offers anything remotely analytical about Haack's music beyond its genius-making-kiddie-records Cool Factor, though the German group Mouse on Mars (Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner) come close to a serious discussion. But then Germans are always serious. After all, to folks from the land of Stockhausen and Kraftwerk, Haack is a kindred spirit whose machine-generated music is a logical progression of their beloved 20th Century electronic music.
The inarticulate hipster musicians interviewed irritated me beyond words; I wanted to rip their thrift store vintage clothing and pummel their meticulously-toussled-haired noggins with my fists, whilst shouting, "Shaddup and say something beyond how cool you are to know who Bruce Haack is!" And will someone tell Haack's friend/collaborator Chris Kachulis to put on a goddam shirt? The clip showing this 60-something, Boris Karloff-lookalike in a wife-beater undershirt shows off nothing but his simian-like hairy arms and shoulders and blotchy Leper Colony skin as he performs "Listen" in a subway station. (Chris, take a tip from Leonard Cohen - if you're pushing 70 and still performing, wear a nice shirt or suit!)
Though the film meanders on for another 10-13 minutes, it really has nothing more to say after 43 minutes (IMDB lists its official running time as 70 minutes, but my DVD was easily under an hour) - therafter sloppily and vaguely referring to the 2005 Dimension Mix tribute album that featured a few big-name electro-pop artists like Beck and Stereolab and Brother Cleve; unfortunately, none of those big names are interviewed, instead we get the guy who worked with the Beastie Boys (Money Mark?) and a bunch of no-namers. (And would it have hurt to do a title card with some info about the tribute album? How about a video insert of the album cover (even a draft copy)? The album came out in 2005 and this film was entered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, but, I mean, gimme something here to connect the dots for those of us who aren't in the know!)
Moreover, the film's greatest failing is that it never makes the case for its subtitle: "The King of Techno." It's just a glib catchphrase, like everything the hipster musicos utter.
One of the few extras on this DVD is a poorly-lit, poorly edited clip of the filmmaker speaking at a Sundance screening (did I see Skizz in the audience?), wherein he suggests that he wants to explore the full spectrum of Bruce Haack's amazing life in a narrative feature film with actors and such. Maybe he can pull off what a similar approach in Man in the Moon did for Andy Kaufman...but I doubt it.
Ultimately, this was a botched opportunity to say something about somebody who warranted the attention. I wish somebody like Skizz Cyzyk had made a documentary about Bruce Haack. He would have gotten beyond the surface and added some depth to this classic example of an "outsider musician" (Skizz's forte) rife for rediscovery by a new audience and rife for getting his due in music history beyond the Inner Circle of Hipster Cultdom. Still, it is all we have at the moment.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Yesterday's Enemy ****
(dir. Val Guest, UK, 1959, 95 minutes)
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country ***
(dir. Anders Ostergaard, Denmark, 2008, 84 minutes)
Old Woman 1: "BURMA!"
Old Woman 2: "Why did you say Burma?"
Old Woman 1: "I panicked."
- Monty Python, "The Penguin on the Television Skit"
As happenstance happens, I found myself watching two films about Burma last night. You remember Burma, the country now called Myanmar by its almost-perfect military dictatorship (in power in one form or another since 1962), but storied in jingle (if not song) by Burma-Shave ads and in war stories by British vets of WWII. Think Thailand without the sex tourism or North Korea without the starvation. Bored by the increasingly paltry and polarized news offerings on CNN and MSNBC, I switched over to Turner Classic Movies and watched the superbly cast British war movie Yesterday's Enemy (1959) and, later, the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ (2008) - the latter recommended to me by a refugee relief worker and subsequently added to my NetFlix queue.
The scene is Burma during World War II. A small British brigade led by Stanley Baker comes upon a Burmese village controlled by the Japanese. The brigade wipes out the enemy, whereupon Baker discovers that the late Japanese commandant has a coded map secreted on his person. When a Burmese prisoner who can decode the map refuses to talk, Baker orders that two peaceful villagers be executed. Baker's actions seem cruel and extreme until it becomes apparent that the enemy is twice as ruthless as he. Based on a TV play by Peter R. Newman, Yesterday's Enemy is a brutal but insightful look at the blurred line between good and evil in wartime conditions.
- Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
Yesterday's Enemy was a Hammer Studio film production featuring principals Stanley Baker, Guy Rolfe, and Leo McKern, that struck me as a very realistic depiction of jungle warfare. But as a war movie, it has an dark and existential bent that is rather uncharactistic for its time (the post-war 1950s being a time when most WWII films portrayed the Allies as indisputably Good and the Axis as indisputably Evil). For one thing, it features a war atrocity - the cold-blooded killing of innocent Burmese villagers (albeit in order to extract vital information from a suspected spy - in order to save British soldiers lives and thus, by the logic of this argument, save the lives of tens of thousands of grateful Burmese in the conflict) - raising the moral dilemma of "the rules of war" war and "obeying orders/questioning authority" and foreshadowing similar events in America's subsequent Vietnam War (My Lai, anyone?). When Baker's Capt. Langford and his men are later captured by the Japanese commander Yamazuki, played by veteran Korean-American character actor Philip Ahn (best remember as Master Kan on the TV series Kung-Fu)...
"Hollywood Asian" Philip Ahn as "Kung-Fu" Kan
...he has the same interogation technique used on him; when Baker tries to cop the "We're only here because you started this war!" moral high ground, Ahn reminds him of Great Britain's colonial wars of conquest in the Sudan, India, and South Africa and Baker's silence makes us realize, yeah, maybe everybody has dirty hands in an armed conflict once it gets underway. (Hmmpft! Take that soon-to-be-crumbling British Empire!)
For another, Leo McKern's cynical war correspondent character "Max" at one points angrily laments that all the killing and sacrifice will ultimately serve no purpose other than filling a memorial grave and getting a meaningless posthumous medal for one's widow and fatherless children to store on their mantle. The closing shot is, in fact, a memorial tombstone. (Point taken!)
Guy Rolfe played the film's moral compass as "Padre" the Priest. Rolfe - who was a direct descendent of John Rolfe, the British soldier who married Pocahontas - is fondly remembered by William Castle fans as protagonist Baron Sardonicus in Mr. Sardonicus (1961).
Guy Rolfe as Baron Sardonicus before...
...and after Botox treatment
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
Burma VJ is a courageous but depressing documentary about a country every bit as "closed" as North Korea but one that doesn't get as much world attention - except for the occasional catastrophic disaster like the monsoon that devastated the nation in 2007 (during which "The Generals" prevented outside aid, more interested in their own survival than their own people's) - because they don't have nuclear weapons and can usually feed their people. It's also a film in which jumpy hand-held camera work is not an edgy you-are-there artistic technique (unfortunately still in vogue in today's indie cinema, especially "mumblecore" ones), but a necessity for staying alive. Burma's flirtations with democracy have been brief, consisting of student-monk protests in 1988 (their 9/11 was 8/8/88, the day hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country to call for democracy) and the metta sutta prayer-chanting monk-led insurgency chronicled here in 2007 - both inspired by economic hardships (like raising the price of fuel by 500% in 2007), both brutally put down (3,000 protesters alone died in 1988). As General Ne Win said at the time of the first uprising, "When the army shoots, it shoots straight." (No kidding, General.)
The documentary's most striking update to the violence is the utter disregard for the traditionable untouchable monks, who are shown being beaten, disrobed, thrown into paddy wagons, and their temples ransacked. This disregard for passive civil resistance is capsulized in the footage of a dead monk's body floating in a muddy riverbank. Nothing in Burma, apparenntly, is sacred under the iron grip of the junta.
Metta Sutta-chanting monks ask: What's so funny
'bout peace, love & understanding?
The '88 protests did lead the dictatorship to hold elections in 1990, which 1991 Nobel Peace Price recipient Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide, but the results were nullified and she was - and continues to be - put under house arrest. In fact, she's has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 20 years.
OK, now you're probably wondering why a doc chronicling brave Burmese video journalists (or VJs - and very unlike MTV's VJ!) was made by a Swedish director, Anders Ostergaard. That's because in a land where there is no free press, the only way to smuggle info out is via the Internet (which can be shut down or filtered a la Google in China) or smuggling tapes to the West. In this case, the journalists documenting the protests and crackdowns belong to a guerilla organization called the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) that has contacts in Sweden.
While the rest of the world uploads videos to YouTube showing cute babies, playful kittens, or amateur porn, in Burma uploaded videos are of a more serious nature. They're literally a matter of life and death in a country where the medium is the message and the law of the land says "Kill the messenger."
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
On a recent visit to BCPL's Cockeysville Library to grab more titles from their impressive graphic novel collection, I scored Dan Nadel's fascinating Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980 (Abrams ComicArts, 2010), the follow-up volume to his Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900-1969 (Abrams, 2006). Both Nagel books highlight the unheralded work of visionary comic books and cartoonists, with the author's stated goal of moving toward "a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic."
Dan Nagel's "Art": Time for rediscovery
Well for me the two most compelling comics were Harry Lucey's hard-boiled, wise-cracking gumshoe Sam Hill - the "Ex Ivy League halfback" private eye with a white streak in his hair and a sexy redhead secretary named Roxy - and Peter Morissi's Mike Hammer-inspired one-eyed "wild man from Chicago" who's as explosive as his name, Johnny Dynamite.
Like Sam Hill, Johnny Dynamite had a curvy secretary in Judy Kane, but after issue #4 he lacked Sam's extra eye and started sporting an eyepatch; in 1987 Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty resurrected the JD character for four appearances in their Ms. Tree comic, then created a 4-issue Johnny Dynamite homage for Dark Horse Comics in 1994.
Max Allan Collins rekindled Johnny Dynamite's fuse
Both pencil-and-ink tough guy sleuths date from the Mickey Spillane-dominated 1950s era of detective comics, but I like Sam Hill better because he's less violent and more stylized like the pulp dicks of the '30s and '40s. He's cut more from the mold of a Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Paul Pine, whereas Johnny Dynamite is more like Spillane's cartoonishly mean-spirited Mike Hammer (or Donald Westlake/Richard Stark's Parker) - a pure brutarian who seems to enjoy killing a little too much. And, unlike Sam Hill, Johnny Dynamite is completely humorless; he only cracks hard, not wise.
I don't know a while lot about comics - certainly not as much as my pal Dave Cawley, who can spot one panel and instantly tell you who wrote it, who drew it, who penned it, and what company published it (whether you ask for a cornucopia of detail or not!) - but I love the hard-boiled PI genre, so my research choices were either the perpetually wired Dave Cawley or the intrinsically wired Internet. I chose the Internet and found out the following...
Sam Hill by Harry Lucey
7 issues, 1950, MLJ
"What the Sam Hill?" Premiere ish intro.
Born in 1950, Sam Hill lived fast and died young, lasting only seven issues. I guess the reader mail didn't come in "heavy enough" (as pitched below in the premiere ish), which is a real shame because Sam Hill is a fun read - and an eccentric personality as well - how many PIs drank milk and wore bow ties (pretty distinctive - guess that was the "Ivy League" touch of "class"!)?
Sam Hill's talking to you, chum!
I like how every adventure was called a caper ("The Cutie Killer Caper," "The Double Trouble Caper," etc.) and featured a preview of each caper's dramatis personnae on the first page (e.g., "Roxanna...my indispensibe Gal Friday"; "Barbara Berkley...my lucious client"; "Rick Marks...Barbara's attorney"), not to mention the denouments that always seemed to find Hill flirting with his Gal Friday.
Dan Nagel writes that Lucey was influenced by film noir's "expressionistic angles" and probably Will Eisner's The Spirit, noting that his character's facial expressions and his panel-framing technique in presenting the narrative almost made words superfluous: "Remove the words from a Lucey story and readers still know precisely how each character feels and what that means for the plot. This strong technique makes Lucey's cartoon characters seem alive on the page like few others, and gives Sam Hill an urgency that raises it above its obvious genre and cinematic infleunces."
Creator Harry Lucey (1913-1979/1980) spent most of his career at Archie publishers MLJ, where he worked on Madam Satan, Magno, Crime Does Not Pay - and even Archie - between 1950 and 1970. In the 1960s he developed an allergic reaction to graphite and had to wear white gloves while drawing, and in the 1970s he contracted Lou Gehrig's disease, followed by cancer. He passed away in 1979 or 1980.
But he left behind these "7 Wonders" of Private Eye comics, as reproduced below:
Sam Hill #1
Sam Hill #2
Sam Hill #3
Sam Hill #4
Sam Hill #5
Sam Hill #6
Sam Hill #7
Johnny Dynamite by Pete Morisi
Comic Media, 1953-1954; Charlton 1954-1956
The early "Two-Eyed" Johnny Dynamite
Johnny Dynamite was created by writer "William Waugh" (nom du plume of Ken Fitch, who co-created Hourman and Tex Thompson for DC Comics) and artist Pete Morisi (1928-2003). Under the title Dynamite, Fitch and Morisi continued to write and draw the character until issue #9 (May, 1954), after which Morisi moved to Charlton Comics and revived the character between 1955 and 1956 under the title Johnny Dynamite.
According to the excellent online source Comic Vine (comicvine.com), "It ran three issues under that name, then three more as Foreign Intrigues, with Johnny retooled as a government agent..."
Johnny Dynamite turns Fed to battle the commies
Comic Vine continues the story: "...With #16 (November, 1957), [Charlton] dropped Johnny and took on the title Battlefield Action. As such, it ran, sporadically at least, until 1984, but Charlton never used Johnny Dynamite again." That's probably because Moresi not only left the series - he left the cartoon profession itself - at least for a while.
In 1956, Morisi became a NYPD police officer and started leading a double life. Because the NYPD forbade extracurricular work, he worked as cop by day and cartoonist by night. Using the pseudonym "PAM" (for "Pete A. Moresi"), he drew hundreds of comics for Charlton (like Thunderbolt and Montana Kid) up until 1976.
Of Morisi's technique, Nagel writes:
He was a master of moment-to-moment storytelling...each action, each pose, was fondly defined and crisply rendered so that a reader can't help but be immersed in his spaces. Morisi told his stories through a series of still images using every camera angle and filmic device he could think of. As if to accentuate the "screen effect, the panels all have rounded corners and there is nary a speed line, sound effect, or any of the other trappings in sight...his panels are crowded compositions full of close-ups on his hero's invariably agonized or beat-up face...the sheer crowded claustrophobia of a teeming city is always at the fore, and characters are always right up agaginst something, surrounded by buildings, trapped in rooms.
Though Johnny Dynamite remained lost for almost 30 years, he was rediscovered in the '90s by a fellow pulp comics fan. Comic Vine again picks up the story:
Widely regarded by fans of the genre as the best and most interesting of the 1950s comic book private eyes, Johnny Dynamite was a favorite of crime novelist and comics writer Max Allan Collins, one of Chester Gould's successors on Dick Tracy. Collins acquired the character in 1987, when many Charlton properties were sold. His first use of Johnny was as reprints in the back pages of his own Hammer-inspired character, Ms. Tree's comic book. Since then, he's branched out into new adventures from a couple of small publishers. His most prominent modern publisher is Dark Horse Comics, where Concrete and Hellboy started.
JD: Two-fisted (but one-eyed) action!
Johnny Dynamite (Toonepedia)
Sam Hill (Toonopedia)
Sam Hill @ Comic Vine (www.comicvine.com)
Johnny Dynamite @ Comic Vine (www.comicvine.com)
Monday, July 26, 2010
Save the Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits
Full Disclosure: All the hits are here but truth be told, I really bought this collection solely for the Chevy Camero commercial at the end, which remains my favorite Turtles recording of all time - and as hard to find outside of this compilation as...well...a 1960s Chevy Camero!
OK, everyone knows The Turtles, the Southern California folk-pop icons fronted by singer Howard Kaylan (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Andy Kaufman's alter ego, Tony Clifton) and singer-guitarist Mark Volman (think Jonah Hill with an Afro) who had all those radio-friendly Top 40 hits in the '60s like "So Happy Together," "She'd Rather Be With Me," "It Ain't Me Babe," "You Baby," and "Elenore," etc. They liked to say that they were only three letters removed from being The Beatles and, like the Byrds, had fashioned one of those "pet" animal species monikers (they even spelled it "Tyrtles" for a spell).
Flo & Eddie - or Jo & Tony?
In truth, they were musical chameleons, able to change their spots to mimic virtually any style, from folk (the Dylan cover "It Ain't Me Babe") and hotrod-surf (the spot-on Jan & Dean imitation "Surfer Dan") to down-and-dirty garage grunge (Warren Zevon's "Outside Chance," Kaylan's "Always There") and the innumerable tunes that captured the soaring harmonies and melodic perfection of the Beach Boys. Heck, they even imitated themselves on "Elenore," though few noticed the self-mockery (least of all their record label, which was more than content with a #6 hit).
Flo & Eddie today
But for the longest time Alpha Turtles Volman and Kaylan were merely Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, or Flo and Eddie for short, as the rights to their name and music were tied up by men in suits with law degrees wrangling over money. With the Suits unwilling to let Volman and Kayman be themselves, much less sing "Let Me Be," they turned to various ventures, including radio broadcasting (they were on K-ROCK, Howard Stern's NYC station, for a while), joining Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, and at one point in the '80s even resorting to recording background music for kiddie TV shows like The Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake (wowie zowie - from Zappa to kid shows, that's quite an aesthetic 360 turn!).
Flo & Eddie: Bear-ing their souls for the kids!
It wasn't until 1984 - after years of recording/touring with Zappa and as solo artists Flo & Eddie (speaking of which, I'm eagerly awaiting my twofer-on-one CD reissue of their brilliant Illegal, Immoral & Fattening/Moving Targets albums from FloEdCo) - that founding braintrust Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman legally regained the use of The Turtles name, and began touring as The Turtles... Featuring Flo and Eddie. (The "featuring" tag was probably added to their moniker because, instead of trying to reunite with their earlier bandmates, they began featuring all-star sidemen who had played with different groups - like Greg Hawkes of the Cars, who most recently appeared with them at the 2010 Dundalk Heritage Fair).
Flo & Eddie win the case!
But it wasn't until 2009 that they regained rights to their recorded music; they had always wanted to clean up the original recordings they made while under contract at White Whale Records in the '60s and the result is this greatest hits compilation CD that was was issued in 2009 on their own FloEdCo label and distributed by Manifesto Records. And clean it up they did, with all 20 of the selections here remastered under the personal direction of Flo and Eddie from the original master tapes.
One thing I noticed right off was the wide range of songwriting (the early Turtles recorded a score of songs by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon of the East Coast band The Magicians, not to mention tunes by P. F. Sloan, Harry Nilsson, and their buddy Warren Zevon) and turnover of band members through the years. Other than mainstays Kaylan, Volman, and founding guitarists Al Nichols and Jim Tucker, the Turtles line-up changed quite a bit over the years - especially the rhythm section. The Great Turtles Diaspora saw bassist Jim Pons replace Chip Douglas (no, he wasn't featured on My Three Sons, but Douglas was a talented bass and keyboard player who went into record production, producing hits for The Monkees - "Daydream Believer" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" among them - before returning to produce Turtles records like "You Showed Me"); Pons would later join Flo and Eddie in Zappa's Mothers of Invention before leaving to start his second career as a film and video director for the NFL (he currently works for the Jaguars); veteran session drummer Johnny Barbata - himself a replacement for Joel Larson (who replaced Don Murray) - left to play with Crosby, Stills & Nash.
That said, if there's one Turtles collection you should shell out the bucks for, it's this modestly-priced greatest hits comp, proceeds from which actually go towards saving turtles at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL. Following are some of my track-by-Turtle-track observations.
1. "Happy Together" (Gary Bonner/Alan Gordon)
Their biggest ever hit and most remembered song, included here in the Numero Uno lead-off spot, as befits a #1 record. Written by the prolific songwriting team behind the NY band The Magicians, Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who also gave The Turtles the 1967 hits "She'd Rather Be With Me" (#3) and "She's My Girl" (#14), as well as the singles "Me About You" and "You Know What I Mean."
2. It Ain't Me Babe (Bob Dylan)
The Turtles debut single from the summer of 1965 rose as high as #8 on the charts during the Dylan-Folk Rock Craze Phase. Hey, it worked wonders for the Byrds' careers, as well. I still prefer Sebastian Cabot's version (available on Rhino's Golden Throats CD) better - but he sure couldn't hit the high notes like Flo and Eddie!
Mr. French hits a low note
4. "You Baby" (P.F. Sloan/Steve Barri)
Despite the opening jingly-jangly riff, the third Turtles single (#20, 1966) is noted for its new direction, moving away from that Folk Rock experiment and more toward high-octave harmony-laden pop in the vein of Frank Valli and The Four Seasons.
Quoth the Turtle: "Elenore." A self-parody of themselves for the album The Battle of the Bands and still the only Top 10 record to contain the expression "et cetera." In fact, the only other "et cetera" song I can think of is The Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan."
6. "Let Me Be" (P.F. Sloan)
P.F. Sloan came up with the necessary folkie follow-up hit to "It Ain't Me Babe" on The Turtles second White Whale single, which reached #29 in 1965, still primo Top 40 turf. And it clearly adhered to their folk agenda of the time: tambourine, 12-string guitar, and a singer pleading for individuality, babe.
7. "She's My Girl" (Gary Bonner/Alan Gordon)
Another hit (#14, 1967) courtesy of The Magicians Bonner-Gordon team with an ominous opening.
8. "Outside Chance" (Warren Zevon)
Warren Zevon penned this garage rock beauty that starts off with a Beatle-y "Ticket To Ride" guitar lick before getting down-and-dirty, as one would expect from the volatile Z man. It was the first track new drummer Johnny Barbata played on, but its lack of success led to bass player Chuck Portz quitting the band, with Chip Douglas replacing him.
9. "You Showed Me" (Jim McGuinn-Gene Clark)
As a Byrdsmaniac, I naturally loved their emo version that appears on the album Pre-Flyte, but I gotta say, this one might be a tad better because of the spooky vibe and Chip Douglas' masterful production (though I could have done without all those melodramatic strings). But hey, enjoy both flavors - like Doublemint Gum, it can only double your pleasure, double your fun.
10. "Can I Get To Know You Better" (Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan)
White Whale wanted a follow-up to Sloan's "Let Me Be" sound, so they commissioned this, but The Sequel No One Asked For didn't chart. The first recording on which Chip Douglas appears.
11. "The Story of Rock and Roll" (Harry Nilsson)
Quite the studio production epic -think Brian Wilson producing the Raspberries "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)" - but I don't like history lessons, especially when they include sax riffing like you hear leading into those commercial breaks on Saturday Night Live. But I guess it was appropriate for their concep album, The Battle of the Bands.
The Kinksy lost masterpiece
12. "Love in the City" (The Turtles)
Guitarist Al Nichol, perhaps influenced by The Lovin' Spoonful's current hit "Summer in the City," wrote this in 1967 and shared the credit with the rest of the band (which at this time included Kaylan, Volman, Nichol, bassist Jim Pons, and drummer John Seiter). This is one of two songs (the other is "You Don't have To Walk in the Rain") culled from The Turtles's 1969 release, Turtle Soup, the critically acclaimed record they recorded with Ray Davies of The Kinks that clearly shows the influence of Ray's 1968 concept album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. This was also the "democratic" album on which other band members - not just Kaylan and Volman - were allowed to sing their songs and share in the songwriting credits. Another Turtle Soup song, "Hot Little Hands," turns up on Turtle Tracks, the limited edition hits compilation sold only at "The Turtles...Featuring Flo & Eddie" live shows. (It's great - I'm glad Amy bought one at the 2010 Dundalk Heritage Fair show!)
13. "Me About You"
Another Gary Bonner-Alan Gordon tune that was also covered by The Mojo Men and The Lovin' Spoonful, among others.
14. "You Don't Have To Walk in the Rain" (The Turtles)
Great Beach Boys Farfisa-y intro to the strongest single off Turtle Soup.
15. "You Know What I Mean" (Gary Bonner/Alan Gordon)
Mark Volman describes this Bonner-Gordon song as "brilliant" and considers it "probably the best Turtles record ever made." That's really saying something - and it's hard to argue with him! The sophisticated production is Pet Sounds-worthy. The single reached as high as #12 in 1967.
16. "Sound Asleep" (The Turtles)
Issued as a single in early 1968, "Sound Asleep" was credited to the whole group, which at this point included Kaylan, Volman, guitarist Al Nichol, bassist Jim Pons, and Johnny Barbata.
17. "Making My Mind Up" (Ray Roberts/Gary Montgomery)
Gawd, this is SOOOOOO Sixties, like the theme song to a rock dance show that never was! Reminds me of Jay and the Americans singing the Love American Style theme.
18. "Grim Reaper of Love" (Chuck Portz/Al Nichol)
Folk Deathtrip Ennui. Serious-sounding but dated step into The Deep (a la Barry McGuire's Dylan-derivative, P.F. Sloan-penned attempt at social commentary "Eve of Destruction").
19. "Guide for the Married Man" (John Williams/Leslie Bricusse)
Love this song, love this 1967 movie (directed by Gene Kelly and starring Walter Matthau, Robert Morse, Inger Stevens, and Carl Reiner)! Before Star Wars there were frisky married men like Matthau just dying to commit adultery and swing in a suburban galaxy far away, and John Williams was there to play Pied Piper and lead the way. 1967 was also the year Williams earned his first Academy Award nom, but for scoring Valley of the Dolls - not A Guide for Married Man!
20. "Chevrolet Camero Commercial" (previously unreleased)
Lean and muscular, full mod with rally racing stripes, it's no wonder "the Camero will drive you absolutely wild!" As on "Surfer Dan" (B-side of their single "Elenore"), The Turtles return to their Crossfires surfboards-and-hotrods roots. The last voice you hear is their bud Warren Zevon!
www.theturtles.com (Official Site)
Hush Little Robot
(QDK Records, Germany, 1998)
I discovered this German import CD (originally released on Bonn's Normal Records) in the "Used Electronic Music" bins at Soundgarden and picked it up out of curiosity. A library co-worker whose boyfriend is into electronic music had mentioned that Enoch Pratt Free Library's children's records collection had several Bruce Haack titles on vinyl that she thought I might like because, well, they were weird. That's an understatement - both about the weirdness (we're talking about a guy who released a kiddie record called The Electric Lucifer!) and about me liking them! In fact, the Pratt has 10 Haack titles on vinyl, including The Way Out Record for Children (1968), The Electronic Record for Children (1969), Captain Entropy (1973), This Old Man (1974), Funky Doodle (1975), Ebeneezer Electric (1977), and four kiddie dance records on the Dimension 5 label (the '60s Dance, Sing and Listen trilogy and 1972's Dance to the Music). I had listened to Captain Entropy and was sufficiently impressed by its oddball factor, determining that Haack was a kindred spirit to Raymond Scott, and I rued the fact that I passed up grabbing the out-of-print documentary about him - Bruce Haack: The King of Techno - when I saw it for a mere $7 at Daedalus Books & Music (Doh! I thought it was about computer hacking!). (Click here to see a preview of this film on Amazon.com.)
I still know virtually nothing about Haack, other than he was Canadian who made electronic children's records (think Hap Palmer meets Kraftwerk), had a regretable name for a musician (a Haack musician?), invented/built/& played his own electronic musical instruments, and passed away in 1988. Oh, and I know the hipsters have discovered him because in 2005 artists like Beck and Stereolab and Brother Cleve of Combustible Edison appeared on a tribute album called Dimension Mix. Thankfully, he has a web site, www.brucehaack.com where the curious like me can learn more about his incredible legacy. I'm just wondering who, besides electronic music buffs like Abby's boyfriend, actually checks this stuff out of the library - because Raffi or The Wiggles it's not!
That said, here's a review of this album - which is apparently a compilation of 6 songs from The Electric Lucifer, ten tracks culled from This Old Man and The Way Out Record for Children, and two radio interviews - by somebody who does know about Bruce Haack. Namely, epinion reviewer Henry Thoreau...
Henry Thoreau's Thoroughly Thoreau Review of "Hush Little Robot":
from Bruce Haack: Pioneer of Elecronic Music
The year was 1970. An acquaintance played a bizarre Columbia LP, The Electric Lucifer by Bruce Haack. My ears pricked up delightedly as I heard “Farad” (an electronic voice) singing the opening bars of the initial, weirdly pulsating track, “Electric to Me Turn”:
Electric to me turn this night
Reflecting universal light
All I knew that should be true
Is reality in you
Turn, turn to me, electric.
The accompanying, all-electronic music struck me as far more intriguing, even, than that of Wendy Carlos and other purveyors of moog synthesizer music per se. While the moog was, in fact, employed by Haack for elements of The Electric Lucifer, what more so intrigued me was the cornucopia of never-before-heard ear candy via his own, homemade electronics which he’d pioneered in the 1960s for various LPs for children (all released on his own label). Complementing the music was the colorful, contemporary, cartoon-like artwork on the album sleeve and, no less, the notes on the reverse: unabashedly “far out” rhapsodizing by Haack about his vision of a perfected universe, one free of “hate and pain and fear,” and very much in keeping with the idealism and weirdness of the era. From the moment I first sampled his quirky genius, I was hooked—indelibly stamped a lifelong fan of Bruce Haack.
Trouble was, until recently, Haack’s music had virtually vanished after Columbia’s release of The Electric Lucifer. From the early 1970s until very recently, Bruce and his bizarre art had seemingly departed the planet for some other, more congenial dimension. In actuality, I subsequently learned that “Dimension 5” was the moniker he used (along with cohort Esther Nelson) for a long line of children’s albums that constituted the bulk of his output. Some of those are too puerile for adult ears, though the stylizations of the electronic music are consistently, unmistakably, and pleasingly Haackian. But interspersed among his works for the Sesame Street set are fascinating digressions and anomalies for adults that either have yet to be released or which were originally released only on the “Dimension 5” label with limited distribution.
Bruce Haack was born in an obscure Canadian village whence he derived his affection for nature, animals, and Indian culture. He was musically educated and active in New York City from the early 1950s through the early ‘70s; thereafter, he resided in West Chester, PA, continuing to produce music, but no longer “commercially successful.” He died unexpectedly in his sleep, apparently of heart failure, at age 57 in 1988. There remains a wealth of promising, recorded material just waiting to be mined for posthumous release; Mr. Praxiteles “Ted” Pandel, Bruce’s lifelong confidant, hopes to issue many more of those works eventually. (Very recently, the uniformly ingenious and masterful Electric Lucifer Book 2, created and recorded around 1979, has appeared on QDK, a German label.)
Hush Little Robot, an import CD via Germany, is currently the next-best thing to a complete reissue of The Electric Lucifer, as it encompasses six tracks from the latter, including the aforementioned “Electric to Me Turn.” As well, two brief 1970-ish “Campus Radio” interviews with Bruce are included. Finally, ten tracks from two of his children’s albums, This Old Man and The Way Out Record for Children, round out the disc. Among these is a remake of “Program Me,” an original track from The Electric Lucifer.
Personally, I would have preferred that The Electric Lucifer and This Old Man had been reissued in their entirety as separate CDs (The Way Out Record for Children interests me far less); while many of their respective tracks do coexist pretty effectively—displaying two modes of Bruce’s creativity--the partial, arbitrary melding of the two albums is, ultimately, not fully satisfying. But, as this is one of only two adult-oriented Bruce Haack CDs available (Electric Lucifer Book 2 is the other), it’s definitely worth adding to your collection. Unlike certain other “electronic music” releases, it should have wide appeal to music lovers of all ages and temperaments. While one may choose to skip two or three tracks, the many others will surely delight.
Hush Little Robot comprises eighteen tracks, as follows:
From The Electric Lucifer (1970):
Electric to Me Turn. Arguably Bruce’s signature song, this remains a favorite of mine. Quintessential Haack, lyrically and musically.
War. While this was undoubtedly inspired by the Vietnam War, it truly is a timeless commentary on all wars. The opening tones are somber and foreboding, with an incessantly beating snare drum suggesting the martial theme; suddenly, a cacophonous eruption bursts forth, followed by a caricatured military march whose decadent, carnival atmosphere escalates to an inexorable crescendo and a manmade Big Bang. Suddenly, a child’s voice proclaims, “I don’t wanna play anymore!” and a confused, disintegrating “fall out” descends, concluding the track.
Chant of the Unicorn. [Actually, this was originally titled “Chant of the Unborn;” I assume “Unicorn” is simply a blooper on this German reissue.] Inchoate “fetal” utterances—sounding rather “adult,” really--are backed by lively, slightly dissonant electronic percussion and other Haackian dance-like effects.
Incantation. Human voices are used for the first stanza, then Farad, the electronic songster, takes his turn. As with other aspects of the album, Haack borrows ostensibly Christian icons for his imagery, as with
Time told of Mary
In reality, I understand Haack was not himself traditionally “religious;” indeed, and thankfully, the general feel of the album is altogether catholic, not Catholic. As with Milton’s poetry, atheists, agnostics and believers alike can appreciate Bruce's eclectic visions.
Song of the Death Machine. The theme here seems to be that of a derelict “Death Machine” or master computer that has survived its misguided inventors. Like its progenitors, it blithely kills with utter detachment and calm:
Resting easy, meditating,
No anxiety, kill.
Senses relay information,
No hostility, kill.
Primal memory, kill.
Resting easy, logic functioning,
Reason programming, kill.
Against the above lyrics Haack juxtaposes music evocative of childhood nursery rhymes (a characteristic and effective ploy throughout his career), which, in this instance, makes for a darkly ironic and chilling effect.
Word Game. Bruce Haack loved to play with words. Ted Pandel informs me that there is a body of poetry that may yet be published. Accordingly, this track showcases the Haackian fascination with words--their roots, resemblances, and “resonances.” Some of the juxtaposed terms employed in “Word Game” include:
Uni-verse / One Poem
Love / evolve
Re-volve / To love again
Live / evil
Lived / Devil
As usual, what makes such whimsy work is the continual inventiveness of the accompanying electronic music, which in this instance assumes a leisurely pace nicely complementing Bruce’s pseudo-etymological meanderings.
From The Way Out Record for Children (1968):
School for Robots. Here is another track that borders on the puerile. The music is interesting, nonetheless.
Rubberbands. A fairly good, all-instrumental track. This resembles many of the sound effects Bruce would employ two years later on The Electric Lucifer, though I can’t honestly say it’s that excellent.
From This Old Man (1974):
Note that Bruce created the This Old Man album ostensibly for children, but, unlike much of his juvenilia, this one is performed entirely by Bruce, sans his erstwhile cohort Esther Nelson. No insult to Esther, but Bruce did much better by himself. Indeed, while This Old Man supposedly is a children’s album, in actuality it is sufficiently “adult” that only a few tracks (e.g., “Elizabeth Foster Goose”) seem overtly on the childish side. And even those tracks are so satisfyingly inventive, both musically and lyrically, that surely most adults will enjoy them too.
This Old Man. Intermittently throughout the album, Bruce employs the gritty persona of a grizzled old man; initially, I found his mock old-man voice a bit contrived; but it’s gradually grown on me--somewhat. At any rate, the old-man narration only pops up at a very few points, and only for short intervals. As for the “This Old Man” track per se, it showcases some felicitous Haackian sound effects from Bruce’s homemade, 1960’s-era apparatus. The lyrics seemingly parody the old “Hush Little Baby” nursery rhyme, and, of course, the long-familiar “This Old Man” ditty:
This old man
He play one
He play for you
This old man
He play two
He play electric song for you
Now this old man
He play three
He play your head electrically
And when this record’s gone
This old man inside your mind
The lively complementary music saves this thankfully brief number, which merges well into the ensuing track, “Bods.”
Bods. The theme of this song is “body language.” Along with still more mellifluous electronic music, this number highlights Bruce’s proclivity for linguistic frivolity; the wordplay is whimsically winsome, as with:
Now when somebody looks you in the eye
That doesn’t always mean it’s a truthful guy
Sometimes it’s something like hypnosis
And sometimes it’s simply staring where your nose is.
Elizabeth Foster Goose. This “children’s” song is so cleverly composed that only the most constipated person--of any age--could fail to be charmed. Bruce’s insouciant narration is complemented by utterly enchanting keyboard harmonies.
Four Dances. While I could do without the “old-man” introduction, the four “dances” that ensue (including “Hush Little Robot”) evince Bruce’s penchant for catchy keyboard riffs and bizarre electronic sounds.
Wooden Bread. Here we are told of an arcane recipe, ostensibly from an old witch, for bread made from maple or hickory trees. By turns witty and jejune, this is not the strongest track on this compilation; nonetheless, it's sufficiently intriguing and engaging.
Program Me. Originally from the Electric Lucifer album, this is Bruce’s solo remake (the original featured other vocalists). Having heard its antecedent, I rather like this version. The theme is that a computer is the ultimate tabula rasa, a veritable child just begging to be programmed.
Shine On. This has its moments, but all the “fascinating” facts Bruce shares here (regarding the scientific properties of light) sound a bit too much like a gee-whiz science show for kiddies. A great track for Newton’s Apple fans; otherwise, a yawner.
Thank You. Here Bruce cleverly, graciously expresses his gratitude to the “many thousands of teachers and kids” who’d supported his children’s music over the years. With its mock-banjo backing and engaging melody, this makes for a brief and agreeable denouement for the compilation.
Note: Capping off the Hush Little Robot CD are two “Campus Radio” 1970 interviews wherein Bruce briefly discusses the making of The Electric Lucifer. The first of these has survived the years well enough; the second opens promisingly with remarks about the moog synthesizer versus Haack’s own homemade paraphernalia, but then the discussion digresses and gets inextricably mired in a bog of 1967-style, “groovy,” nonsensicality. Were he alive today, I wonder if Bruce wouldn’t be a tad embarrassed--or amused--to hear himself uttering the following observations:
“Touch is like, uh, togetherness, touching minds and touching bodies, and what a great way to make music. To aim the focus of your, uh, to focus your aim on touching a person's body, to bring together, and thus producing sound .... touching each other, and also touching ourselves without and within and, uh, also touching each other in harmony, which is great. In other words, this touch gimmick, as I have it, is actually producing sound when you are touching.”
I’d guess that most Haack fans will do as I do: listen once or twice to these interviews, then skip ‘em.
Until complete CD reissues (hopefully) appear for The Electric Lucifer and This Old Man (not to mention the heretofore unpublished portions of Haack’s oeuvre), the Hush Little Robot CD serves admirably as an introduction to the music of Bruce Haack. In the meantime, check out the recently released Electric Lucifer Book 2 CD (on the QDK label, and distributed by Forced Exposure.) If anything, the sequel--lacking even one bad track--is still better than the Columbia original! You can read about and order both Hush Little Robot and Electric Lucifer Book 2 via the following link: http://www.forcedexposure.com/artists/haack.bruce.html
Bruce Haack Music (www.brucehaack.com)
Bruce Haack (forcedexposure.com)
Bruce Haack: Pioneer of Electronic Music
Bruce Haack (Wikipedia)
Haack on YouTube
Sunday, July 18, 2010
You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009
(Second Motion Records, 2010)
I just got this 41-track double-CD retrospective of my favorite cult pop star this week and upon initial listen, I was ready to disown it because I thought it sounded so unfamiliar. But I was wrong; more than just a rehash of three decades-worth of recordings by Bethesda's influential guitar hero, it offers something different for the Tommy Keene completist (which I unabashedly am!). Once I got some perspective on what exactly I was listening to, I couldn't stop listening to it, even though I have most everything presented here. (Note: This is a review of the standard CD, not the bundled version that includes an additional 10-track bonus digital album. I wanted that but Amazon had a pre-order special of a mere $14.99 for the standard 2-disc edition and, well, I'm cheap!)
Basically this is the latest chapter in filling in the gaps of Keene's back catalog, updating the career retrospective that began with Alias Records' excellent The Real Underground (1993) - which covered Tommy's 80s output up through the 1992 Sleeping on a Rollercoaster EP and was highlighted by several unreleased tracks recorded with Steve Carr at Rockville's Hit and Run Studio ("Andrea," The Who's "Tattoo," "Dull Afternoon," "Don't Sleep in the Daytime," "Hey Man," the Flamin' Groovies' "Shake Some Action") that were otherwise only available on Alias' 1994 UK-only Keene comp Driving Into the Sun (which included only one "new" song: "Tell Me Something," later to turn up on a 2004 rarities compilation) - and Not Lame Record's woefully neglected treasure trove of outtakes (mostly from Songs from the Film and the still out-of-print Based on Happy Times), demos and other curios, Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (2006).
The problem was a dearth of information; Second Motion Records really should have released this retrospective with detailed liner notes - something like Tommy's informative capsule comments for Drowning - because early reviews and press releases claimed that there was only one "new" song on You Hear Me - an acoustic version of "Black & White New York," a song from Crashing the Ether (2006). But that's misleading.
See, I was in the shower listening to "Gold Town" (from Tommy's first Geffen album, 1986's Songs from the Film) when I jumped out, thinking something was wrong with the CD because the vocals were drenched in reverb and the beat seemed different, slightly slower and then it had that different ending - instead of ending on a guitar fadeout it ended on a drum beat, followed by a false ending and two more drum beats. Later, toweling off, I heard a way different version of "Don't Sleep In the Daytime" and started scratching my head. What the fuck, I thought, they released this record using the wrong masters!
I knew this was a remastered release of Tommy's back catalog and I started contemplating the countless examples of CD releases in the past in which the record companies messed up and used the wrong masters or alternate mixes (like the first Byrds CD), and I figured this was another one. But then I started researching it and found, on a discussion board thread from TK's Facebook page, Tommy's own breakdown of what was different on this release. Only then did I learn that "Gold Town" was a previously unreleased version produced by T-Bone Burnett. (It's interesting, but I still prefer the Geoff Emerick recording on Songs from the Film. But hey, it's another look at a classic tune...)
So, as a public service to other folks keen on Keene, here's my own breakdown of what's what (and from where) on You Hear Me.
You Hear Me: The Deconstruction
(Note: songs in bold = new)
1. Back To Zero Now
2. Mr. Roland
Tracks 1 and 2 represent the A- and B-sides of Tommy's first single from 1983 on Dolphin Records. The single was included in the 1983 re-release of his first (still unreleased) album, Strange Alliance (Avenue, 1982). "Back To Zero" is also available on the vinyl Places That Are Gone EP (Dolphin, 1984); "Back To Zero" and "Mr. Roland" also appear on the CD The Real Underground (Alias, 1993).
3. Baby Face
The first great Keene ballad, originally released on the Places That Are Gone EP and later included on The Real Underground.
4. Back Again
5. Safe In The Light
Two from the out-of-print Back Again (Try) vinyl EP (Dolphin, 1984). They also appear on The Real Underground CD.
6. Gold Town
The previously unreleased T-Bone Burnett/Don Dixon version from the original Songs from the Film sessions recorded at Reflection Studios in Charlotte, NC in 1984. Songs From The Film was essentially recorded twice, first with T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon producing and then again with former Beatles producer Geoff Emerick for the version released on Geffin in 1986. Some of the Burnett/Dixon recordings were later released on the Run Now vinyl/cassette EP. Those tracks, plus a few more outtakes, were then included on the 1998 CD reissue of Songs From The Film. This one wasn't...until now.
7. Places That Are Gone
8. Paper Words And Lies
9. Kill Your Sons
10. Call On Me
11. Marilyn Monroe
Tracks 7-13 are from the Geoff Emerick-produced sessions for Tommy's major label debut, Songs from the Film, originally released in 1986 and remastered and re-issued on CD in 1998. "Places That Are Gone" is a re-recording of the title track from Tommy's Places That Are Gone EP (Dolphin, 1984) that drops the sound-collage intro and goes straight into the music. "Places That Are Gone" also appears on The Real Underground (Alias, 1993) and the various artists compilation Poptopia: Power Pop Classics of the '80s (Rhino/Wea, 1997).
According to blogger Wilfully Obscure, a T-Bone Burnett version of track 10 - "Call On Me" - was recorded in 1984 during the first Songs from the Film sessions; would have been interesting to give that a try-out here, though the Emerick cut is pretty damned primo. Wil also claims that T-Bone produced a version of "The Story Ends" and something called "Fall Down Too" from these initial SFTF sessions. (T-Bone's "Call On Me" and "Fall Down Too" recordings are available in the 10-track bonus digital album bundle version of You Hear Me.)
14. Run Now
Title track from the 1986 Run Now EP, later included on the 1998 CD reissue of Songs from the Film. Though most of the EP was recorded in 1984 at North Carolina's Reflection Studio by T-Bone Burnette and Don Dixon, "Run Now" was a 1986 Bearville, NY-production by Bob Clearmountain. You can also see Tommy performing this song in the 1986 Michael Anthony Hall film Out of Bounds (it's also on the movie soundtrack album). But I gotta question why Second Motion didn't include the incendiary version recorded live in March 1986 at NYC's The World - the guitar-slinging workout that has become a staple of Tommy's concerts (usually a show-closer, along with the other encore "usual suspects": "Back To Zero" and "Places That Are Gone"), but still can only be heard on the out-of-print vinyl and cassette versions of the Run Now EP.
15. Nothing Can Change You
16. This Could Be Fiction
17. Based On Happy Times
18. When Our Vows Break
19. Highwire Days
20. Don't Sleep In The Daytime - unreleased Ardent version
21. A Way Out
Tracks 15-19 and 21 are from Tommy's final (and arguably best) Geffin album, Based on Happy Times (1989). The Tommy Keene group had disbanded after the Run Now EP and Keene headed down to the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis (home of Alex Chilton and Big Star) to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy, who also played on the album (Hardy on bass and organ, Hampton on drums). The fruits of his labor would be this long out-of-print album. "Nothing Can Change You" was covered by the Goo Goo Dolls in 1998 and appeared on their certified gold three-track CD-single "Slide."
Though recorded during the same Ardent Studio sessions, track 20 is an unreleased version of "Don't Sleep In the Daytime" - more drum-driven and uptempo - that hasn't seen the light of day until now. A very different, more downbeat, version - recorded with Steve Carr at Rockville's Hit and Run Studio - appears on The Real Underground CD.
The melancholy beauty "A Way Out" (exquisite mandolin solo courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck) provided the coda to Based On Happy Times and works the same magic here, closing out Disc 1 on a reflective, quiet note - before the thunderous opening salvo of Disc 2 gets things rocking once again...
1. Love Is A Dangerous Thing
2. Driving Into The Sun
3. Down, Down, Down
Tracks 1-3 were originally released on the 5-song Sleeping on a Rollercoaster EP (Matador, 1992). Curiously, the song "Sleeping On a Rollercoaster" turns up only on The Real Underground (Alias, 1993) - or Driving Into the Sun (Alias, 1994) if you live in the UK. "Down, Down, Down" is yet another epic Keene ballad.
A live version of "Love Is a Dangerous Thing" is one of the 10 tracks in the digital-only You Hear Me bonus bundle from Second Motion.
4. No One In This City
The first song Tommy recorded after going bi-coastal and moving from Bethesda to his current home, Los Angeles. This sounds like a re-recording of the version that appears on Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame, 2004). Maybe not...if not, this sure sounds good for an outtake.
5. Turning On Blue
6. Your Heart Beats Alone
7. Silent Town
8. Good Thing Going
Tracks 5-9 are from Tommy's return to album-length form, Ten Years After (Matador, 1996). Recorded 10 years after his Geffin debut, get it? Totally rocking with a grungier, multi-layered guitar sound that should have put him squarely in the mainstream with a commercial hit. Just like Songs from the Film. Woulda, coulda, shoulda...but like Morrisey bemoaned, The World Won't Listen. Nestled amidst all the thunder was perhaps Tommy's most poignant ballad, "Your Heart Beats Alone" - a song that continues to move me every time I hear it.
10. Long Time Missing (live)
"Long Time Missing" originally appeared on Isolation Party. But this live recording is taken from Tommy's collection of live show recordings, Showtunes (Parasol, 2001).
11. The World Outside
12. Never Really Been Gone
Tracks 11 and 12 are culled from the superb - albeit out-of-print (natch) - Isolation Party (Matador, 1998).
13. Big Blue Sky
The lone track from the underrated The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt, 2002).
14. Black And White NY - unreleased acoustic version
15. Warren In The 60's
16. Lives Become Lies
Tracks 15-16 are from Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty, 2006). My least favorite Keene album, but represented here by three tracks (so what do I know?), with track 14 being a previously unreleased acoutic version of "Black and White New York."
17. A Secret Life Of Stories
18. Save This Harmony
19. Tomorrow's Gone Tonight
Tracks 17-19 are from Tommy's most recent release of new material, In the Late Bright (Second Motion, 2009).
20. Leaving Your World Behind - cover of a 20/20 song
Add to the long list of superlative Keene covers, a list that includes "Tattoo" (The Who), "Carrie Ann" (Hollies), "Shake Some Action" and "Teenage Head" (The Flamin' Groovies), "Einstein's Day" (Mission of Burma), "Hey! Little Child" (Alex Chilton), "Our Car Club" (Beach Boys) and, of course, Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons." The original was an album track off 20/20's awesome debut, the eponymous 20/20 (Portrait, 1979).
So there you have it, Keenesters.
I just wish they had included more obscure stuff here for a mass audience that otherwise wouldn't hear such lost Keene gems as "Disarray" from the Big Deal compilation Yellow Pills Volume 1 (also included on Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany), or that live version of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Your Sons" that can only be found on the vinyl and cassette editions of the Run Now EP, or "Run To Midnight," which Tommy recorded while on the Not Lame Records label and which is only available on the CD that came with John M. Borack's powerpop guidebook Shake Some Action (also published by Not Lame Recording Company).
And if you really wanna get obscure, why not "The Heart (Is a Lonely Place)" from the D.C. band compilation Connected (Limp, 1981). I know - it's all probably got to do with music publishing rights and licensing issues with all the various labels TK's been on over the year - and I won't even bring up the continued absence of anything from Tommy's long-buried Strange Alliance album (or the seven unreleased demos - "End Of The World," "In Our Lives," "Walking On The Street," "I'm Your Friend," "You Break My Mind," "Someone To Blame," "Foolish Mind" - from that album that remain on the cutting room floor, according to blogger Wilfully Obscure), much less the record itself. I'm just saying...
By the way: the 10-track digital-only album includes the following, and I suppose I will have to get this someday...just to be a completist!
Places That Are Gone (alt mix by Bill Wittman from Songs From The Film
Nothing Is Grey (demo 1982)
Stuck On A Ship (Demo 1983 from Dolphin Places That Are Gone EP)
Fall Down Too (Unreleased track from T-Bone/Don Dixon album recorded July 1984
All Your Love Will Stay (Home Demo 1999)
Eyes of Youth (Home Demo 1999)
Never Really Been Gone (Live in Chicago 1998)
Call On Me (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)
Compromise (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)
Love Is A Dangerous Thing / Brad's Boogie (Live at Campbell University NC - 1996)