Thursday, April 13, 2006

Beckett 100


Why did none of us remember that today marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Beckett? Doesn't that make you feel a little ashamed, as one of the surviving torch-bearers for what we laughingly call civilization, to have missed commemorating such an occasion? It does me.

Let's boil this stew down to its basest aroma. It's because of Sam Beckett that the phrase "Waiting for Godot" has entered the popular lexicon, as a way of referring to anticipating something that isn't going to happen, a hope that isn't going to be fulfilled, a prayer that won't be answered -- much like "Catch-22" refers to things that can't happen because their very possibility is inextricable from their unlikelihood. The phrase is known and understood by multitudes for whom the play itself would be well above and beyond comprehension.

On a personal note, the name Godot carries a special personal meaning for Donna and me. We spent many happy, loving years with a beautiful black-and-white longhaired cat named Godot, so named because we had to wait three months to take possession of her and because she never came when anyone called her. I read my share of Beckett in those days, when a novelist is all that I worked at being and hoped to be, and I spent much time coveting the Grove Press hardcover collected works that used to reside near the basement cash register at Cincinnati's long-gone Kidd's Bookstore, priced at a then-astronomical $100.

When was the last time I saw something as substantial as Beckett's collected works given such pride of place in a bookstore? Ouch. How far we have fallen.

I ask myself. I ask you. Which is the more tragic -- that I had to be reminded that today was the first centenery of Samuel Beckett's birth by the IMDb? Or that every link I could find relating to Beckett centenary celebrations (all in his native Ireland) led to "This Page is Unavailable" notices?

I must admit to having gained distance from Beckett myself in this video age of ours, but I cherish the impact he had on me -- as a reader, moreso than as a writer. His early works like MURPHY were novels of acute and comic Irish absurdity and caricature, but as time went on, his titles became more and more about themselves, and reflected such reductive powers of concentration as could be compared to the pressure that transforms coal, over thousands of years, into diamond.

One of my favorite of all literary epigrams comes from the closing lines of THE UNNAMEABLE, the conclusion of a trilogy-of-sorts beginning with MOLLOY and MALONE DIES; in just a few words, Beckett succeeded in summarizing a feeling about life and work that I wouldn't fully appreciate till I reached my 40s, when it became a veritable motto: "I can't go on. I'll go on." I can't think of seven other words that more richly evoke what it is like to live and work in today's world, and that's why we should be raising one to this man's memory today.

To Samuel Beckett. One of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature who was actually worth a damn.

May I humbly suggest that we all adjourn with our pints to the nearest roadside curb, where we can sit and wait for the parade in Sam's name that isn't going to come?

Without Pitney

It was only by a major force of will that I was able to overlook the untimely passing of vocalist-songwriter Gene Pitney last week, in the midst of my week-long Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon. Pitney died of natural causes -- on Corman's 8oth birthday -- at the age of 65, after giving a final concert performance to an appreciative audience of 1,100 in Cardiff, Wales. He was midway through a UK tour and was to have performed in Glasgow, Scotland the following night. BBC News interviewed a longtime fan, Wendy Brown, who spent some time speaking with Pitney (always accessible to fans) in his dressing room after the show; she reported that he "looked fine" and that his concert showed him to be "in great form." The last song he sang: "Town Without Pity."

It's hard to put this mysterious kinship into words, but I've always felt that my first intimations of the spirit to which I gravitate, not just in music but in all the arts, began around 1961-62, when songs like "Town Without Pity" and "Telstar" by The Tornados first seared through the sameness of Top 40 radio. I was only five or six years old, not a sophisticated listener, but whenever these songs came on the radio, I became very still. I became an active listener. They attuned me to something deep inside myself that naturally inclined toward the dark and the fantastical.

I would not realize for several years still to come that "Town Without Pity" was the theme song of a movie, a West German-US co-production starring Kirk Douglas and Christine Kaufmann, about the gang rape of a young German girl by four US soldiers (two of them GOMER PYLE U.S.M.C.'s Frank Sutton and Robert Blake in a performance that points forward to his later work in IN COLD BLOOD) and how the ensuing trial "rapes" her in a different way, more decisively ruining her life and driving her to suicide. But it's appropriate that the vibe in that song for which I felt such affinity would turn out to have ties to what we now call Eurocult.

TOWN WITHOUT PITY is an affecting movie, though not a particularly good one, and when I finally got to see it for the first time in the late 1960s, it didn't eclipse the feelings I already had for the song. I think the song fits the story and the mood of the movie very well, but I also feel that it stands for a great deal more than the concrete situation about which it was written. (It was written, incidentally, by the great Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington.) For example, I have gay friends who relate to "Town Without Pity" because it speaks to a relationship whose existence must be whispered between its two intimates, because society -- lyrically reduced to a "town" -- doesn't understand or condone their love. (This reading may have had something to do with why John Waters selected it for use in his HAIRSPRAY soundtrack.) At the time, it doubtless spoke just as directly to interracial lovers. There is also something about Tiomkin's music, its slinky 6/4 piano PERRY MASON atmosphere, that speaks even to innocent ears about corruption and despair, about a world of vice and law whose sheer opposing weight is geared to crush out what is best in the human heart through sheer oppression. So I guess you could say that my attraction to "Town Without Pity" was that it offered Top 40 listeners substantially more truth about the world at large ("it isn't very pretty...") than the average pop song.

Of course, it was Pitney's tortured vocal that brought the song so committedly to life. One of the most distinctive interpreters pop music has ever known, Pitney was a superior stylist, a tuneful enunciator who seemed to look past the lyric to each song's underlying meaning -- the soul of each word, and the spirit that strung them together. To hear such an unmistakable voice, one might expect it to be limited or unlikely to be flexible in terms of milieu, but Pitney was much more than just a maestro of octave-swooping melodrama. He could be twee in some song settings, but he could also sing convincingly from the stances of cowboys ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), truck drivers ("Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa" and "Last Chance to Turn Around" -- a song whose chorus incidentally inspired the title of Hubert Selby Jr.'s hard-hitting novel LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), and even gondoliers. Pitney was one of the first pop vocalists to record foreign language export versions of his hits, and he recorded entire albums of material for the Italian market, which was especially receptive to his near-operatic delivery. He was also one of the pop song's technical pioneers: almost a full ten years before Paul McCartney recorded his 16-track one-man-band solo album McCARTNEY, Gene Pitney provided his own musical accompaniment on his first hit single, "(I Wanna) Love My Life Away," though recording technology was limited at the time to only two or three tracks.

Justly recognized as a talented songwriter ("He's A Rebel", "Hello, Mary Lou"), Pitney spent most of his recording career covering the work of other composers. He was arguably the most notable male interpreter of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David ("True Love Never Runs Smooth" being a particularly good example). For the past few years, a British label called Sequel has been reissuing most of Pitney's 1960s albums as two-fers, and to know Pitney properly, it's important to move away from the hits and see what he accomplished on his albums, uneven as they often are. A particularly fascinating index to his talents is the album GOLDEN GREATS, which Musicor paired with THIS IS GENE PITNEY. GOLDEN GREATS is Pitney-as-one-man-jukebox, finding him accepting the challenge of either improving upon songs already placed in the Top 40 (if not the Top 10) by other artists, or failing miserably. An awkwardly reworded rendition of The Supremes' "Stop in the Name of Love" frankly kicks his ass, but Pitney manages to score well or better with most of his choices, which include The Hollies' "Bus Stop" and Gary Lewis and The Playboys' "Count Me In." He shows the expected affinity for Roy Orbison's exquisitely melodramatic "Crying," the countrified shadings of Tom Jones' "The Green, Green Grass of Home," and the inspirational doo-wop of The Platters' "The Great Pretender," but it's Pitney's incredible cover of Jay and the Americans' "Cara Mia" that brings the listener to his knees. Here, we realize that it wasn't enough for Pitney to be a sensitive stylist and interpreter; a song had to meet him halfway, to be available to an instrument of Pitney's unique range and ability, for the alchemy to fully ignite. "Cara Mia" offers him opportunities to drag lyrics across the gravel of his lower register and also to soar above one's highest expectations. This track, vastly superior to the hit rendition it covers, deserves to be remembered as one of Pitney's greatest moments on record.

Still, when we note that GOLDEN GREATS was released in 1967 -- the year of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND -- it's easy to see how out-of-step the album was with its times, regardless of its achievement of moments that now seem absolutely timeless. It also had the misfortune to carry a title which, at a glance, portended yet another of the "greatest hits" albums that were epidemic in Pitney's output. There were exceptions to the rule, but apart from the album he later cut with George Jones (which not only prophesied the 1970s country-rock-crossover but the 1980s "duets" craze as well), Pitney's albums never really took the necessary quantum leap of vision and creativity to maintain his dominance in the field. His popularity may have also suffered by someone's decision to photograph him in the company of an attractive model who would change from one album cover to the next; after all, there was a commercial reason why the Beatles management wanted to keep John Lennon's marital status under wraps in those days. Despite these professional missteps, Pitney seems to have had an unusually solid grip on reality and his place in the world; he resolutely did what he was good at doing, without conceding to trends. He also put his real life first, with his wife and three sons, always making his home in his native state of Connecticut. America forgot him, at least to the extent of making it unfeasible for him to tour the States in later years, but he remained a beloved figure abroad. The only time I saw Pitney on American television in the 1970s was when he appeared on THE DON LANE SHOW, an Australian talk show briefly syndicated here.

When I first came online in 1995, I discovered that AOL hosted some music newsgroups and I spent some time lurking in several of them, among them one devoted to Gene Pitney. I was amazed to discover that Pitney himself was a frequent participant (his screen name was "ThePits") who took pleasure in answering people's questions, at least the ones he hadn't been asked a million times before. It was my first exposure to how the Internet could bring previously distant or unapproachable celebrities within one's virtual reach; in other AOL news forums at that time, it was not uncommon to find the likes of Bobby Vee, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby holding court. My standout memory of "ThePits" is that there came a time when he announced that he would be absenting himself from the forum because he felt a now-or-never need to throw himself into some new songwriting. I don't know what, if anything, came of that woodshedding, but I suspect the yield wasn't anything like he must have hoped for, like a new record deal. However, thereafter, he did more earnestly pursue a return to live performance abroad.


A few years ago, Gene Pitney appeared on PBS television stations across the country in a live performance recorded in, I think, Hartford, Connecticut -- not far from home. The performance, which was also issued as a live album, proved that little about this consummate craftsman had diminished over time. Though they were by then over 40 years old, his most familiar hits were sung as though their sentiments were still coming directly from his heart rather than from the teleprompter of memory. In the midst of this parade of request fulfillments, I was particularly struck by his performance of a Robbie Williams song, "Angels," which seemed tailor-made for the Pitney treatment and proved him a still-heroically-vital interpreter of modern-day songwriting. Unfortunately, I don't think Pitney ever recorded a studio version; it might well have been the adult contemporary hit he was hoping to record.

Yes, 65 is much too young to die... but, on the other hand, Pitney ended his life asleep -- without misadventure, without pain, without infirmity, without disease, without knowing the end was coming, and without the heartbreak of conscious goodbyes -- after a triumphal performance to an appreciative audience, knowing that many more such evenings were still to come. I honestly can't think of a more blessed exit.

And his songs stand every chance of living on forever, or at least as long as hearts can be broken or swell with pride or love or aspiration to the point of breaking. Feeling these things and listening to Gene Pitney, we know that we are not alone.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My Favorite Bands "Under Review"


Fans of, shall we say, audacious rock music will be excited to learn about two new releases coming out later this week from Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual. The first two DVDs in a new series called "Under Review," these feature length programs focus on two 1960s bands whose legacy was supremely influential on the cutting edge music of subsequent decades: Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. They street on 4/15 and retail for $19.98 apiece.

Fans of these cult groups will find it almost wondrous to see their histories discussed so seriously and eloquently, not only by well-credentialed critics but by former members of the bands in question. VELVET UNDERGROUND: UNDER REVIEW (85 minutes) interviews VILLAGE VOICE music editor Robert Christgau; Clinton Heylin, author of essential books on punk rock, Bob Dylan, bootleg albums and Public Image Limited; Total Rock DJ, author and journalist, Malcolm Dome, and Luna mainman Dean Wareham, as well as Velvets members Maureen "Moe" Tucker and Doug Yule, and Andy Warhol Factory photographer/Velvets album cover designer Billy Name.

CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: UNDER REVIEW (115 minutes) interviews Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes; author/critic Alan Clayson; UNCUT magazine contributing editor Nigel Williamson, and a vast assortment of Beefheart Magic Band alumni, including John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliott "Winged Eel Fingerling" Ingber, ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas. Both discs contain many clips of rare performances, archival interview footage, and are supplemented with interview outtakes and interactive quizzes. It's also great to hear the music of these bands remixed in stereo surround. I want a whole album of how "Ella Guru" sounds on the BEEFHEART DVD.

Both programs approach their subjects chronologically, single by single and album by album. As someone intimately acquainted with the discographies of both bands, I found it actually cathartic to watch these documentaries, to see the work of these often overlooked units so fulfillingly appreciated. Of course I have my own feelings about their recorded output, so I was somewhat disappointed that Beefheart's ultimate statement TROUT MASK REPLICA was not addressed with the same gravity as, say, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO on the corresponding release. (There is some disagreement among the Beefheart authorities assembled here, but LICK MY DECALS OFF, BABY and CLEAR SPOT seem to vie for their #1 choice, with TROUT MASK being... well, singular. And for a double album, it IS pretty singular. I wish Matt Groening had been invited to balance the books.) My own favorite Velvets album is their third, self-titled album, which I feel is given its due her, but the VELVET UNDERGROUND program actually reminded me of the importance of the AND NICO album, their first, which was actually recorded in 1966 and not issued until 1967. It is not the better album, but it is unquestionably the more important group statement. Likewise, Beefheart's CLEAR SPOT track "Big Eyed Beans from Venus," his most beloved track by fans and arguably his best-realized studio performance, is rather surprisingly dismissed by Mike Barnes as popular on account of its accessibility. Accessibility doesn't explain why I am nearly moved to the point of tears every time I hear it; it has much more to do with the alchemy of its clean production and the sound of every member of the band mining dissonance until they tap an almost exorcismal sublimity and sweetness. Again, the Velvets disc excels in this area with its extended appreciation of "Venus in Furs" from THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO, which the critics identify -- to a man -- as the moment where that album becomes timeless and transcendent. To hear Robert Christgau, echoing Lester Bangs, cite this track as the moment "where modern music begins" is incredibly satisfying and insightful.

Watching these documentaries, one realizes that Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground had far more in common than their very different music makes apparent. Both groups were dominated by a single personality: Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet (who abandoned music in 1981 to pursue a successful career in painting), and Lou Reed of The Velvets (who left the band in 1970 to pursue a still successful if increasingly literary solo career). Both groups had members in their early lineups who left after creative clashes with the "alpha male" -- John Cale in The Velvets, Ry Cooder in The Magic Band -- their departures radically changing the nature of the groups' music. Both groups were also "sponsored", in a sense, by iconographic art figures: Andy Warhol (VU) and Frank Zappa (CB). Furthermore, as the two figureheads of these bands have become more remote and inaccessible -- Van Vliet, reportedly suffering from multiple sclerosis, has not been photographed in decades, while Reed prefers to focus on his solo work -- the contributions of their fellow band members have been given the space to come into much stronger relief. It's refreshing to see the Velvets documentary pay so much respectful attention to Moe Tucker, founding member/guitarist Sterling Morrison, and especially Doug Yule, who replaced Cale in the band, which he joined in time to play on their third album. The first VU album is almost certainly their greatest and most important, and their second album WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT is just as grand in a darker way, but the greater balance of the group's classic core of material was written and recorded after Cale's departure. It was only after Yule's joining, and the loss of Cale's abrasive signature viola, that The Velvets became a classic rock-and-roll band.

An interesting result of Van Vliet's silence in recent years, and one about which I have very mixed feelings, is that much of his original projected persona has been revealed as, for lack of a better word, "show biz." His amazing voice, once self-described as encompassing six or more octaves, has since been professionally charted as somewhat narrower. His stories about never attending school and having never indulged in drugs have been proved various shades of hooey, and his former band members have portrayed him as a ruthless task master, almost a cult leader, not to mention a sometimes wrongful appropriator of song credit. And then there is the 1973-76 "Tragic Band" period when Beefheart turned his back on his muse to attempt more commercial music, only to discover that his watered-down brand of funk-pop attracted no new listeners and turned away those he already had. The stories presented on the BEEFHEART disc by his fellow band members are generally very respectful, sometimes acknowledging that Van Vliet was absolutely and unerringly aware of the impact his music would have over time. (John French recalls Van Vliet telling him, some 35 years ago, "Someday you'll hear a knock on your door and it will be someone who has travelled halfway around the world to record your recollections of what we are doing right now!") But the program pays rightful attention to the musical skills of Beefheart's associates, all of whom continue to do good work but clearly miss the "north star" visionary who led them in younger days to vistas previously unexplored in music. Some of them are working today in tribute bands to keep Beefheart's extraordinary blues-avant-art-swamp-rock fusion alive and available to fresh discovery.

These discs mark an impressive starting point for what I hope will be a successful, ongoing series. I'd love to see similar discs address the music of, say, King Crimson, Can, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, Laura Nyro, Amon Duul I and II -- and that's just for starters. Based on the choices shown here, I suspect the producers of these discs are thinking along much the same lines.

Postscript: Music Video Distributors and Sexy Intellectual have now announced the third and fourth releases in the "Under Review" series. June 6 will see the release on a profile of KATE BUSH, and following on June 27 will be THE SMITHS.