Sunday, August 31, 2008

THE MATING DANCE

Remember Hernan, the hot stud from two weeks ago? The tall, dark beautiful stranger with the wicked smile and the bedroom eyes? The one who never called?

Yeah. That one.

I saw him again on Friday night. It wasn't entirely by chance. My former Spanish teacher once told me that if you lose track of someone whom you want to see again, go back to the place where it all began. With this sage advice in mind and the encouragement of my friend Cara, I returned to Angel's two Friday nights in a row, hoping for a sequel to our unexpected rendezvous.

The second time I got lucky. Moments after I arrived, in walked Hernan. Same wicked smile. Same bedroom eyes. He approached me, as if he knew he'd find me there. After briefly invading each other's personal space, I knew I had to ask the inevitable question. "¿Por qué no me hablaste nunca?" Did you, like, lose my number or what?

What he did next nailed shut the coffin of our brief non-romance. Instead of answering, he took me by the hand, walked to the bar, requested a pen and paper, wrote something on it and handed it to me. I read it, admiring his excellent penmanship. He'd given me his phone number and a brief message: "Llamame". Call him? I thought. Then after another invasion of my personal space, he ran off to God knows where.

I took the piece of paper out of my pocket, looked at it one more time, ripped it up into itty bitty pieces and threw it on the floor. I never saw Hernan again. But in an ironic twist, I spent the rest of the night talking (just talking!) to his friend Wagner. I think Hernan may have seen us and left. Whatever. What's that old saying? Snooze, lose?

I'm not sure what was the bigger turn-off: The red pants Hernan was wearing or the fact that what had begun as a sexy flirtation had turned into a foolish game. Don't let me be misunderstood. I enjoy the mating dance as much as the next guy. But as I've learned in my two years in Buenos Aires, some guys engage in this particular tango because they don't have the guts to just go after what they want. Or perhaps they just don't want it badly enough. Whichever it is, I know better than to not move on. Remember, I'm holding out for butterflies. Or a hero. Whichever gets to me first. And believe you me, I am convinced that eventually, one way or another, one of them will find me, one of them will get me get me get me get me.

DOWNLOADS
Bonnie Tyler: "Holding Out For A Hero"
Michael Jackson: "Butterflies"

A COMEBACK CUT SHORT?

Like dogs, every superstar has his (or her) day. You know, that unlucky moment when the hit singles start to become fewer and farther between. For some (Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Ashanti and Maroon 5 come to mind), that day arrives sooner than expected. Others (like Kid Rock and Pink, whose first single from her upcoming hit-bound fifth CD just debuted in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100) manage to outlive their expected sell-by date.

And then there is Mariah Carey, an artist who appeared to be finished at the dawn of the '00s only to make the most spectacular comeback since Tina Turner's mid-'80s roll with 2005's The Emancipation of Mimi. So, Music Junkie recently wondered out loud, what the hell happened with her latest CD, E=MC2, which is as good as, if not better, than Mimi? Good question. Although its first-week sales (463,000) were the best of her career, and it spawned her 18th No. 1 hit, "Touch My Body," follow up singles failed to follow suit, and the album quickly dropped off the radar. It's a magnificent failure coming not so hot on the heels of Mimi. But let's face it: Mimi owed its blockbuster success to one great single, "We Belong Together." Without it, the CD may have suffered a fate similar to E=MC2's.

So what's Mariah's problem? Number one: Weak singles. "Bye Bye" is a bore. "I'm That Chick" is an okay album track--empasis on album. "Migrate" and the haunting "Side Effects" (download) are far more exciting and as an added benefit, they feature hot rappers of the moment T-Pain and Young Jeezy, respectively. Number two: Her disappearing act. Since her quickie surprise marriage to Nick Cannon, she's pulled a big one. She seems to spend more time vacationing in the Caribbean than she does working the promotion circuit. Like Britney Spears with last year's Blackout, she actually has a decent album to promote, and she's asleep at the wheel.

Number three: An industry-wide phenomenon of which Mariah is just one victim. Rihanna can crap on a disc (which she basically did with "Take a Bow") and watch it go to No. 1, but several once seemingly indestructible talents--among them, Usher, Alicia Keys and Beyonce--have had trouble scoring multiple hits from their most recent albums. Blame iTunes. Back in the day, when record stores still existed and people had to go to them to get new music, before physical singles went the way of 8-tracks, vinyl and casettes, the biggest stars enjoyed multiple trips to No. 1 and the Top 10 with each album because the release of a new single was still a big event. If you liked the song but didn't want to pay for the entire CD, you had to wait until it was physically released to stores to snap it up.

Now, with iTunes, we're able to sample entire CDs the day they are released and cherry pick which songs we want. If you fancy, say, track six on Mariah's CD ("I'm That Chick") but don't want the full album, you can get just the song right here right now. So when her record label decides that it's the fourth single from E=MC2 (I must have blinked and missed single No. 3, "I'll Be Loving U A Long Time"), it doesn't really matter. Any Mariah fan who wants it already has it, and there is no physical product for completists to buy. So in order for the single to become hit, it has to win over news fans--people who don't care enough about Mariah to sample E=MC2 on release day--with a kick-ass video or tons of radio play. (For artists like Rihanna, Chris Brown, Fergie or Jordin Sparks, whose still-growing fan bases may take weeks, months even, to check out their CDs, this is less of a problem.) But even if Mariah attracts new fans, because the Hot 100 is determined by weekly airplay and sales, the old ones who already bought the album or downloaded the track don't fit into the equation. The result: Lower chart placings, which decreases the CD's profile and, ultimately, its cumulative sales.

It happened with "Give It 2 Me," the second single from Madonna's Hard Candy opus. Pre-release, critics inexplicably singled out the track as one of the album's best. My friend Dave, who is perhaps the world's greatest Madonna fan, even predicted it would be her biggest hit since "Vogue" (in a momentary lapse of reason, he forgot that she's already had two bigger ones, "Take A Bow" and "Music"). The buzz led to a premature Hot 100 debut at No. 57 the week Hard Candy entered the album chart at No. 1. But now that "Give It 2 Me" is officially a single, it has yet to re-enter the singles chart. A middling video and radio's continued lack of love for Madonna makes the winning over of new fans highly unlikely. As a result, the single flopped, a setback from which Hard Candy will probably not recover.

Artists like Rihanna and Chris Brown have sidestepped this problem by re-releasing their CDs with new tracks. For people who like to think of albums as self-contained creative statements, this cheapens the artistic process. But who said Rihanna or Chris Brown are artists? They are more like money-making corporations and their CDs are simply product. Aside from "Umbrella," which will go down as one of history's great pop songs, neither of them have ever released anything that we'll still want to hear or even remember in 2020.

But don't cry for Mariah just yet. Things could be a lot worse. (Ask Janet Jackson.) She could always go the repackaging route--something she did with Mimi, extending its shelf life and adding a 17th No. 1 single to her tally. Even if she doesn't, she'll be back. With another No. 1 album and another No. 1 premiere single. But what happens after that is anybody's guess.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

LO MEJOR DE DAVID BOWIE

¡Las listas, las listas! ¿Las quieren todos, no? Sigo con el tema de David Bowie por listar mis nueve favoritas canciones de él después de "Sound and Vision" (alfabéticamente, como siempre). ¿Va a sacar otro CD alguna vez? Lo último era en el año 2003. Bueno, sobre, por favor...

Lists, lists! Everybody loves them. I continue with the subject of David Bowie by listing my nine favorite songs by him after "Sound and Vision" (alphabetically, as usual). Will he ever release another CD? The last one was in 2003. Anyway, envelope, please...

  1. "Absolute Beginners" Romance verdadero. Melodrama pura. Absolutamente perfecta. True romance. Pure melodrama. Absolutely perfect.
  2. "Ashes To Ashes" La continuación de "Space Oddity." Aún es mejor que lo auténtico. The sequel to "Space Oddity." Even better than the real thing.
  3. "Beat On Your Drum" "I'd like to beat on your drum...." Traducción: Vamos a hacer el amor. ¡Sexi! "I'd like to beat on your drum...." Translation: Let's get it on. Sexy!
  4. "Cat People" Una canción del álbum que contiene "Let's Dance," "China Girl" y "Modern Love." ¡Tan buena como los exitos! A song from the album that includes "Let's Dance," "China Girl" and "Modern Love." A cut above the hits!
  5. "Day-In Day-Out" Me encanta por el video, el que mostra una vista aterrador de la vida urbana. Lo mejor de sus obras mas reciente. I love it because of the video, which offers a terrifying view of urban life. The best of his later work.
  6. "Heroes" Una amiga de Nueva York usó esta canción cuando se casó. El momento más romántico del señor Bowie. A friend from New York got married to this song. Bowie's most romantic moment.
  7. "I Can't Read" Esta canción de la banda Tin Machine, la que el señor Bowie creó al final de los 80, no es bien conocida. Todavía, vale escuchar. Canta la palabra "mierda"--eso era tan escandoloso cuando tenía 20 años y era estudiante en universidad. This song from the band Tin Machine, which Bowie formed in the late '80s, isn't well-known. Still, it's worth a listen. He sings the word "shit," which was totally scandalous back when I was a 20-year-old college student.
  8. "Space Oddity" ¡Claro! La favorita de todos. Vuelva, vuelva, Mayor Tom. Of course! Everyone's favorite. Come back, come back, Major Tom.
  9. "Young Americans" Era arreglado por Luther Vandross, y suena un poquito a Las Vegas. (Hola, Cher!) ¡Maldición! Me encanta en todo caso. Arranged by Luther Vandross, it's a little Vegas. (Hello, Cher!) Damn, I love it anyway!

UNA CITA CON DAVID BOWIE

Como periodista, he entrevistado a muchas celebridades de música. Britney Spears. Mariah Carey. Sting. Christina Aguilera. Enya. Y la lista sigue y sigue. Siempre mis amigos me preguntan la que era mi favorita. ¿Mi respuesta? ¡Por favor! ¡David Bowie, por supuesto! Nunca voy a olivdarme el día que entrevisté al señor Bowie. O más bien, el día que iba a entrevistar al señor Bowie.

La noche anterior era la noche de la mejor fiesta gay de la semana en Nueva York. Fui y agarré una borrachera. Después de todo estaba muy borracho. De hecho, me despertí el día siguiente y todavía estaba un poco ebrio. Fui al baño para ducharme. Abrí el agua y empecé lavarme. Entonces, paré. Pensé, ¡No puedo hacer esto. No puedo entrevisto a David Bowie cuando me siento así!

Inhalé, exhalé y llamé a la publicista del señor Bowie, y le dijo a ella que no podría hacer la entrevista porque estaba muy enfermo con intoxicación alimenticia. (¡Qué común excusa!) Le pedí hacer la entrevista por telefono el día siguiente. Me dijo que querría que nos conozcamos el señor Bowie e yo porque creía que al señor Bowie le caería bien y al revés. "¡Qué bueno!" contesté, colgué el telefono y volví a mi cama.

Esta noche me quedé en mi departamento sin tomar alcohol. No querría perderme otra entrevista con el señor Bowie. La mañana siguente, me despertí temprano, me vestí en ropa de moda y fui al studio en donde el señor Bowie estaba haciendo su nuevo CD, Earthling. Después de esperar un ratito, estaba vis a vis con la estrella de rock. El señor Bowie me miró, se rio y comenzó hablar, "Me dijeron que estabas enfermo ayer." ¡Guiño!

¡Supo! ¡Supo! ¡Supo que no estaba enfermo! Me dirigió una mirado y supe que supo exactamente lo que había hecho la noche antes de la primera entrevista. Me sentí tan vioento. Nunca volví a tomar alcohol la noche antes de una entrevista. ¡¿Quién habría imaginado que el señor Bowie, de toda gente, me enseñaría esa lección?!

Ahora, ¡vamos a bailar!

Mi canción favorita de David Bowie: "Sound And Vision"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

MORE ADO ABOUT OSCAR!


Dear Oscar. I just can't get you out of my head! I thought I'd gotten everything off my chest, but comments from people who read my post yesterday got me thinking about you again. Some concurred with my choices, some disagreed, and some pointed out omissions. So today I've decided to revisit one of my favorite subjects (yes, you!), this time highlighting actors you've never acknowledged and specific roles for which you should have. Take note, my man, and try to do better. Love, Jeremy

CAMERON DIAZ Vanilla Sky: Most people would probably say There's Something About Mary, but I think that was Ben Stiller's show. It was as a woman scorned by Tom Cruise (a role originated by Nicole Kidman in real life) that Cameron finally proved she was more than just another pretty face.

HUGH GRANT Bridget Jones Diary: Hugh has given other worthy performances (Four Weddings and a Funeral and About a Boy immediately come to mind), but as Bridget's caddish, womanizing boss, he masterfully played against type while retaining his unique charm. Oscar must have been too busy marvelling at Renée Zellweger's temporarily ample proportions to notice.

JIM CARREY The Truman Show: Everyone in Hollywood (most of all, Jim) seems to think he's entitled to a nomination. He certainly earned a (denied) spot on the shortlist with both The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show. His performance in the latter as the unwitting star of his own reality show is one of the best examples of a funny man playing it straight in recent years.

LISA KUDROW The Opposite of Sex: The best actor among the Friends, Lisa was so on-point and so un-Phoebe as a dowdy bitter spinster pining for Lyle Lovett.

MARK RUFFALO You Can Count on Me: Laura Linney got all the glory, but this wasn't a one-woman show. Mark's day will come.

MEG RYAN When a Man Loves a Woman (Runner up: Courage Under Fire): She's no Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Or Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow. Or Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses. But damn, Meg can act! Too bad she already had been irrevocably typecast as America's perky-perfect sweetheart. Oscar shrugged.

MIA FARROW I have a confession to make. I've never seen any of Mia's pre-Woody Allen movies. Still, it's hard to believe that with classics like Rosemary's Baby and The Great Gatsby and all those Woody Allen films on her resume, that she's never deserved a single nomination.

MICHAEL KEATON Clean and Sober and Pacific Heights: Cinema's original Batman cast against type. Twice. Oscar shrugged. Twice.

OLIVER REED Women in Love: Oscar nodded Viggo Mortensen for fighting nude in last year's Eastern Promises (and for snubbing him for a number of other worthy performances), but Oliver Reed and Alan Bates beat him to the nude wresting thing in Women in Love (above). And it was a far more daring thing to do in 1969.

THANDIE NEWTON Crash: The movie won Best Picture and scored Matt Dillon a long-time-coming supporting actor nod, so Oscar definitely didn't hate it. But what about Thandie? She drove three of the film's most memorable moments: First, she put up a major fuss after being frisked and groped by Matt's racist cop. Then, she viciously ripped into her husband for not doing anything about it. And finally, in the centerpiece scene, she raged as she was pulled from her overturned about-to-explode car by Matt in redemption mode. At least her efforts were rewarded with a BAFTA, Britain's Oscar equivalent.

Since we're back on the subject of the Oscars, my curiosity was piqued today when I read a teaser saying that the seventh season of Dancing With the Stars would feature a Grammy winner, an Emmy winner and an Academy Award winner. I'd already read about the Grammy and Emmy winners, but I couldn't wait to find out which Oscar winner's career has sunk so low that he or she would actually appear on the show. As it turns out, it's someone whose career is still afloat: Cloris Leachman!

Now I love Cloris (left) as much as the next guy. She looks fabulous, still makes regular sitcom and film appearances and has a role in the upcoming The Women, but the woman is hundreds of years old! Considering that the Emmy Winner, Susan Lucci, is 61, and the Grammy winner, Toni Braxton, suffers from heart disease, I'm wondering if the show is trying to build suspense not only with the contest itself but with an even more pressing question: Will someone drop dead mid-season? I predict the highest ratings yet--but at what cost? On the plus side, at least the show, is raising its standards. Goodbye, C-list, hello, B-list!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

O OSCAR, WHERE ART THOU?

Somebody pinch me. Every now and then I need a little reality check to convince myself that I really do live in a world where Hillary Swank has two Oscars while so many far more celebrated--and, let's face it, more accomplished--actors have none. Sorry, her performance as the unbelievably saintly title character in Clint Eastwood's unbelievably manipulative Million Dollar Baby (above, bottom) was competent enough, but that it trumped Annette Bening's masterful interpretation of a vain, aging stage beauty in Being Julia (above, top) is one of Oscar's great gaffes.

Lest you think I stubbornly refuse to give Hillary her due, I will admit that Oscar probably got it right during Round 1 of the Hillary Vs. Annette showdown in 2000. As much as I enjoyed Annette in American Beauty, I was no great fan of the movie, and if one remembers just one thing about it, it probably wouldn't be Annette's performance. Hillary's triumph for playing a transsexual in Boys Don't Cry not only kicked off the '00s trend of actresses glamming down to seduce Oscar, but it was, like Marlee Matlin's 1987 Children of a Lesser God win and, earlier this year, Marion Cotillard's for La Vie En Rose, one of those once-a-decade phenomenons where a relative newcomer levels her more seasoned Best Actress competition.

And it was a knockout performance. But Hillary's Round 2 win in 2005 was completely unnecessary. Especially because it means that Annette continues to be Oscar-less. (And the trailer for her next film, a remake of The Women, does not look promising.) At least among female thespians with nominations and no wins, she's in excellent company: Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore, Joan Allen, Marsha Mason... And the list goes on.

But what of those actors who've never even enjoyed the honor of being nominated? And as at least one nominee says every year, it's an honor just to be nominated. I mentioned Richard Gere in a previous post. Like Annette, he's in good company.

Ashley Judd Oscar has unjustly overlooked her on at least three occasions: Ruby In Paradise, Normal Life and Bug. I predict her fortunes will change with her role as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the upcoming Helen (trailer). You heard it here first!

Danny Glover Unfortunately for The Color Purple star, his '80s heyday came well before Oscar started regularly giving props to black actors.

Dennis Quaid He's been in his share of stinkers, but if his repressed homosexual husband in Far From Heaven (right) couldn't get Oscar's attention, it's hard to imagine that anything will.

Donald Sutherland He's played opposite so many actresses in nominated or winning roles, from Jane Fonda in Klute to Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People (in which he was the only principal cast member to be snubbed by Oscar) to Keira Knightly in Pride & Predjudice. So where's his nomination? My prediction: Eventually (and he's 73, so it better be soon), he'll get his one lifetime acheivement nod in the supporting actor category for a glorified cameo a la Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild.

Isabelle Huppert Oscar has been pretty good to French leading ladies, from winners Simone Signoret, Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard to two-time nominees Leslie Caron and Isabelle Adjani to one-time nominees Catherine Deneuve and Anouk Aiméé. Sadly, Jeanne Moreau is well past her prime, but one can only hope that Oscar will eventually notice Julie Delpy and especially 14-time Cesar nominee (a record!) Isabelle Huppert, who should have been cited for 1991's Madame Bovary.

Jamie Lee Curtis I've said it before, and I'll say it again: She deserved a nod for nailing teen spirit as Lindsay Lohan trapped in Jamie Lee's body--or was it Jamie Lee Curtis trapped with Lindsay's personality?--in Freaky Friday (left). Now that she's more or less "retired" from being a full-time actor, Oscar has probably missed his chance.

Jennifer Jason Leigh In my opinion, she's the most criminally overlooked actress on this list. In a perfect world, she'd have at least three nominations, for Georgia, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Washington Square, and possibly two more, for Single White Female and Dolores Claiborne.

John Cusack For anyone who thinks all he can do are romantic comedies and popcorn flicks, I've got two words: The Grifters. Enough said.

Martin Sheen If BUtterfield 8 star Elizabeth Taylor won in 1961 for nearly succumbing to pneumonia offscreen, Martin at least deserved an honorable mention for nearly succumbing to a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now (left). At least Emmy has made up for Oscar's oversights.

Michael Gambon One of Britain's most respected actors (and Annette Bening's ghostly mentor in Being Julia), he seems to work now more than ever. I still remember the first time ever I saw his face in the mid-'90s on London's West End opposite his future Gosford Park costar Eileen Atkins, another overdue Brit, in a production of The Unexpected Man. I think that like Donald Sutherland, he'll eventually get his due, but, like Donald Sutherland, it better be sooner rather than later. At 67, he's not getting any younger.

And honorable mentions must go to...

  • Alan Rickman
  • Christopher Plummer
  • Jeff Daniels
  • Michelle Yeoh
  • Peter Sarsgaard

Oscar, what you waiting for?

Monday, August 25, 2008

SPLIT PERSONALITY

Last Monday night I had dinner at Hollie and Caspar's, and my new friend Claudia made an interesting, unexpected and, as it turns out, dead-accurate declaration. "You love attention. You want people to look at you," she said to me. Before I had a chance to take offense, she clarified. She wasn't talking about the guy the world sees during regular business hours. She was referring to my dancefloor alter-ego, the outgoing free spirit that I become somewhere between my third and my 30th (kidding!) whiscola. My God, I thought, I must be such a ham!

Before you write me off as a total exhibitionist, let me assure you that I don't spend every waking hour angling for attention. In fact, much of the time, I'm pretty much a loner, borderline reclusive even. My friends in New York were always understanding when I'd sometimes disappear on the weekends and not answer my phone because I just needed time alone. Once a friend of mine asked my brother Alexi how he would describe me and Alexi replied that I am a "recovering introvert." Nobody before and no one since has gotten it quite so right. Sometimes I still think that Alexi knows me better than anyone.

Last night I went out to GLAM to meet up with some friends, and I was in a pretty mellow mood. One of my best friends got some bad medical news this past week, and I've been feeling quite low. Rather than being the social butterfly and dancing queen that I become when I pass through the doors of GLAM, I was uncharacteristically low-key and quiet, sipping on a beer and just enjoying the company of the people in my circle.

Toward the end of my hour or so there, I ran into José, an acquaintance whom I see now and then. A minute into our conversation, he made his own interesting, unexpected and, as it turns out, not-quite-dead-accurate declaration: "Tonight I'm talking to the real Jeremy." I get it, I get it, I thought. This is the Jeremy you really like, the one who will give you his undivided attention while you're having an intelligent conversation about serious things. Normally, he sees me sometime after whiscola No. 3, when my Dr. Jekyll has fully metamorphosized into my Mr. Hyde and giving undivided attention and having intelligent conversations are no longer my strengths.

I'm talking here about more than a loosening of inhibitions. This is an incredible Hulk-like transformation, the emergence of a completely alternate personality. But, I explained to José, it's still me. There is no real Jeremy and no fake Jeremy. The person I become after a few drinks is authentic, as much a part of me as the person he was talking to last night. But because I spend the majority of my life sober, the cool, calm, collected Jeremy is the dominant Jeremy, not wild, crazy ass Jeremy.

Today I've been thinking about my split personality and why this particular week mine spawned commentary from two people. While Claudia doesn't seem to have a preference, José clearly favors Dr. Jekyll, the guy he was talking to last night. The irony: The relationship between the two sides of my personality is perfectly symbiotic. Without Mr. Hyde, José never would have gotten to Dr. Jekyll, who's shy and doesn't exactly work the room. In fact, he can be a little aloof and, I've been told, intimidating. Mr. Hyde, who was out in full force the night José and I met nearly two years ago (when, incidentally, I was wearing the same Marc Jacobs cowboy-themed button-down shirt that I wore last night), is more approachable. But he'll probably get to you first. He's the outgoing one who reels people in.

Sound complicated? Well, nobody ever said I was easy.

Speaking of split personalities, check out this track from one of pop's great chameleons, P!nk, from her then-successful, now unfairly dismissed R&B diva phase: "Split Personality"

Friday, August 22, 2008

THIS IS NOT A HAPPY POST...

First off, let's get that one thing straight. Despite the photo above of Hollie, Dom, Caspar and yours truly (madly, deeply...mad) having way too much fun last Friday night, today I've got sad songs--which, as Elton John once sang, say so much--on my mind. Don't worry, I'm in great spirits. But I don't feel like dwelling on odes to joy. Once in a while, there's perverse pleasure to be found in wallowing in other people's gloom. So without further ado (or is it "adieu," which makes as much sense as Paris Hilton's hairstyle during her recent inexplicable publicity trip to Denmark), here are 10 of my favorite five-hankie tunes. Save up all your tears--you'll need them.

  1. Brenda Lee "My Colouring Book": Melancholy that transcends genre. Not even my girl Dusty Springfield could top Brenda with her version, and here's why: Dusty, as usual, gives us soulful. Brenda gives us plain old sad. Sometimes, that's all you need.
  2. Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach "God Give Me Strength": What becomes of the brokenhearted when they hold nothing back. Devastating.
  3. George Jones "Still Doin' Time": Lovesick blues (punctuated by country's most piercing guitar riff) without a hint of the melodrama that slightly mars George's signature hit, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
  4. Mariah Carey "We Belong Together": The best bleeding-love blockbuster of the '00s. Runner up: Alicia Keys' "No One." Pack it up, Leona Lewis. You've been outdone and outsung.
  5. Maria McKee "If Love's A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags)": What's sadder than this standout among standouts on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack? That Maria has never enjoyed the U.S. breakthrough she so deserves.
  6. R.E.M. "Why Not Smile": Some of the best sad songs are not necessarily about romantic love. A far more persuasive antidote to suicidal depression than their huge hit "Everybody Hurts."
  7. Reba McEntire "You Lie": Scenes from a marriage in tatters. Country queen Reba's finest moment.
  8. Sade "Fear": Sade at her most misty blue. "Azul es el color del rojo cielo. ¿Volverá volverá a mi esta noche?" She gets me every time.
  9. The Smiths "Never Had No One Ever": Morrissey, King of Pain, at his most pathetic. And I mean that in the best possible way.
  10. Tracey Thorn "I Sat Down By Picadilly Station And Wept" The Queen of Pain? "Do you ever wonder where love goes? Out there in the ether, I suppose." Oh, Tracey, if only I knew.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

MADNESS, MONEY AND NAKED BABIES

Tick tock tick tock tick tock TICK TOCK TICK TOCK TICK TOCK... What's that sound? It's my biological clock pounding in my eardrums.

Today I went on an audition for a Johnson & Johnson commercial. Now, before you ask, I'm no actor. In thespian mode, I probably would make Paris Hilton look like Dame Judi Dench. But you can't blame a guy for trying. Not that I didn't have some random, unexpected encouragement. One day, as I was walking home from Pilates, a woman stopped me on the corner of Santa Fe and Scalabrini Ortiz. She said she loved my look, and she was convinced that I could get work in advertisements. It wasn't something I'd ever before considered, but I figured that I should be open to trying new things. After all, I'm not in Kansas, nor New York, anymore. So I emailed her some photos I'd recently taken along with my personal stats and gave her the go-ahead to sign me up.

Since then, her agency has sent me on a handful of auditions, which I usually screw up because, as I said before, I'm no actor. But today was a bigger disaster than usual. I was trying out for the role of "papa," and part of my audition was striking various poses with the cutest little naked baby ever. Now everyone who knows me knows that for the past year or so, one of my greatest dreams in life has been to someday adopt a pair of Argentine twins, a boy and a girl, and name them Matías (my favorite Spanish male name) and Adriana (just a female name that I like). Of course, being a firm believer in the two-parent household (not that I have anything against single parents, but I don't think it's for me), I'm holding off on fulfilling that dream until I fulfill my other dream of meeting Mr. Right. You know, I'm holding out for butterflies, so that little Matías and Adriana can grow up in a stable two-parent household.

Anyway, there I was holding the cutest little naked baby ever, and I couldn't possibly have been more uncomfortable. You see, I'm the youngest of four children, so growing up, I was surrounded by older siblings. As a grown-up, I've never spent a significant amount of time around babies, so as much as I love them, I don't quite know what to do with them. So there I was holding the cutest little naked baby ever probably looking completely ridiculous and totally out of my element. I also couldn't stop wondering what would happen if the cutest little naked baby ever had the sudden urge to, um, you know, go. He must have sensed my discomfort--or maybe it was the way my right hand was jammed awkwardly under his right armpit to keep him upright--because he started to cry. Awww, I thought, and rocked my body back and forth, trying to calm him down. It worked, but I still couldn't get the baby-daddy pose quite right.

The "director" gave me a few more instructions in Spanish, and then it was over. Relieved, I gave the cutest baby ever back to his mom and thought to myself that this was one commercial I was not going to be invited to be in--nor did I really want to be in it. I also vowed never to go on another commercial audition. But I'm a sucker for punishment and a glutton for excitement--or is it the other way around?--so I'm sure I'll be back for more.

Meanwhile, that sound... It's coming around again.... Tick tock tick tock tick tock TICK TOCK TICK TOCK TICK TOCK...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

WATCH YOUR STEP!

This morning I had a crappy walk to my Pilates class. Literally. Buenos Aires has no apparent dog-walking laws, so when you walk Fido, you aren't compelled to pick up after him. In a city with crowded sidewalks made even more overcrowded by professional dog walkers and their charges (I still haven't figured out how they keep track of who's gone and who hasn't), this makes walking and jogging, two of my favorite pastimes, precarious enterprises. I've basically stopped storing my shoes in the closet after wearing them and now just leave them out on the balcony. Oh, how it pained me to leave the Lacoste trainers that I recently bought in Santiago de Chile out there the other day!

This morning, when I arrived to Pilates and began to take off my shoes, I noticed that there was dog doo on the bottom of my workout pants. Somehow it had been transferred from the bottom of the shoes to the pants. There was also a little smudge around my knee, and I don't want to know how it got there. I panicked, ran into the bathroom and thoroughly washed the bottom of my pants and the left knee area to rid them of every trace of doo.

I think Operation Dog Doo was a sucess, but I spent the entire class worrying that my instructor, Ezequiel, was holding his breath and thinking nasty thoughts about me. If he was, he didn't let on. But that was little consolation. He's a sweet, congenial guy. Although every so often, he'll gamely try to say something in English and get the phrase right but not use it in the most polite way. Example: He says, "Get up," in stead of "Stand up," which actually sounds nicer. I wonder if there is a similar distinction between "Levantate" and "Arriba." I still don't have the heart to let Ezequiel know that "Get up" actually sounds a little bit impolite. I suspect the same of "¡Arriba!".

Today he asked me for the English word for "pollito." That's "little chicken" in English. In Spanish, you can drop the final vowel of most nouns that end in one, add "ito" or "ita," depending on the dropped vowel, and the object in question becomes little. Example: A "momentito" is a short moment, and a "casita" is a small house. You can do it with names too. Thus, Pablito is to Pablo as Tommy is to Tom. I explained to Ezequiel that contractions and IM/SMS lingo notwithstanding, we generally don't take semantic shortcuts. The word "little" was created for a reason, so we just use it.

Now isn't that a better Spanish lesson than the Madonna song?

But getting back to dog droppings (I know you want to), I'm not sure what to do about the doo. I was always told by my elders to hold my head high when I walk, but unfortunately, that puts me at a higher risk for stepping on doo. There must be some way to walk with pride and not ruin my shoes. After all, the streets are full of people who seem to be doing just fine. Or maybe it's a silent epidemic that no one dares to talk about because poo is not the nicest topic of conversation. I've considered walking in the street, but which is worse--death by speeding collective (a BA bus) or death by embarrassment over doo on my trousers?

Maybe I'll just start springing for taxis.

FIVE GREAT DOG SONGS

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A HARD HABIT TO BREAK

I have a new blog obsession. I don't love Music Junkie just because it reviews artists as varied as Coldplay, ABC, Sophie Ellis Bextor and all the perfunctory R&B hitmakers of the day. Or because it gives props to blasts from the past as unexpected as Irene Cara, Bernadette Cooper and Evelyn King. I love it because it posted the fabulous cover above from Shannon's 1986 album, Love Goes All The Way. To be honest, I never knew even knew that the "Let The Music Play" singer made it past her sophomore slump. Thanks for the tip, Music Junkie. Aspiring divas (and Mariah Carey), take note. This is how you do it.

Shannon will always have a special place in my heart because she was one of the performers at my first concert, which took place at Disney World in the mid-'80s. (My folks, being ultra-religious, thought concerts were the devil's playground and didn't ease up on their live-music ban until I was well into my teens). Shannon was in her (short-lived) commercial prime at the time, as were New Edition, who were also on the bill. The other headliners, Cheap Trick, were still a few years away from their second wind, which blew in with hurricane-strength gusts in 1988, thanks to the beyond-sappy chart-topping ballad "The Flame."

Now I do my part to prop up the great, underrated Shannon. Here's a shoulda-been-a-smash from her 1983 debut long player, Let The Music Play.

DOWNLOAD "Give Me Tonight"

Monday, August 18, 2008

WALKING AND TALKING IN BA

Last week I spent a very pleasant Thursday afternoon catching up with my friend Michael. I missed seeing him when I was in New York, and he was in Buenos Aires for one day en route to Santiago de Chile. We had lunch in Plaza Serrano, one of BA's most popular spots (with tourists and the locals who want to impress them) and walked around Barrio Norte and Recoleta. We tried to get into the cemetery so that I could show him Evita's grave, but we arrived just as it was closing. Instead we checked out El Pilar (above), the oldest church in Buenos Aires, next door and walked through Buenos Aires Design, a furniture mall where everything seems to have tripled in price since I bought my couch and dining-room set there nearly two years ago.

In fact, on Thursday I noticed how expensive BA is becoming--at least the areas where visitors tend to congregate. It's still a bargain for North Americans and Europeans, but with so many businesses catering to foreigners (real estate companies and most rental agencies accept only U.S. dollars--in cash!), I wonder how locals who are living off of pesos survive. Still, despite the rampant crime, the hardworking ones do. A friend of mine told me that his father makes 7,000 pesos a month after taxes, which adds up to about US$2,330. And his is a solidly middle-class one-income family. The mathematical wheels in my head started turning. The mortgage and maintenance fee for my apartment in NYC alone is more than that. I couldn't support my single self there on that income.

Thankfully, I don't have to. The truth is that BA continues to be an inexpensive place for expatriates, if not so much for tourists. I'm still not sure how peso-earning porteños do it, but more power to them. As for us expatriates, living here, one knows where to eat out and where to shop. Plaza Serrano is strictly for taking guests to the city or for hanging out and people watching on a slow afternoon. The food in the restaurants there isn't so great and neither is the service.

In general, going to discos and going out to eat isn't the ridiculous bargain that it was three years ago when I first started visiting BA. But when one lives here, one doesn't do those things on a daily basis. The cost of living is still quite low--if you are living off of U.S. dollars, Euros or British pounds. My phone bill, my health and homeowners insurance, my Pilates classes, groceries in proper supermercados cost a small fraction of what they would in the U.S. And if you avoid the trendy tourist traps over-populating Palermo Soho, Recoleta and now even San Telmo and eat out in the more traditional parillas, you get better food and the just-crawling-out-of-the-bargain-basement prices that BA is known for among world travelers.

And most importantly, you can still get an excellent bottle of wine for less than US $4. Salud!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

BEAUTIFUL STRANGER

My memory is so not what it used to be. I'd like to blame age, but I'd say the culprit is more likely whiskey. Or more accurately, too much of it. Friday night, I went to a club called Angel's. It's not a place I go to often, but whenever I do--especially with my friend Jeffrey--I always have a crazy time. The place is a little tacky, a little trashy and quintessentially Argentine. Unlike any other club I've been to in Buenos Aires, there is an entire dance floor on the lower level dedicated to Latin jams.

Shortly after I arrived, I walked over to the bar and ordered the first of three whiscolas (whisky--the cheap national stuff--and coke). As I waited for my drink, a tall, handsome guy started chatting me up. "Hablás español?" he asked. "Sí," I responded. We didn't really talk much. We just kind of stared at each other and smiled. Once I got my drink, I tore my eyes away from his and went upstairs without pursuing anything further.

Stupid me, I thought. Why didn't I talk to him? Why didn't I stare at him some more? Why didn't I ask him to dance? Why this? Why that? Being the shy type (yes, I am, although most folks who meet me wouldn't know it because I put on a killer social-butterfly act), I decided that going back to talk to him--or stare at him--was out of the question. But I had a plan. I wrote down my phone number on a piece of paper with the following message: Querría conocerte mejor! (Translation: I would like to get to know you better.) Then I went back downstairs and stood within his eyeshot. As soon as he saw me, he walked over to me. Rather than picking up our non-conversation where we'd left off, I handed him the piece of paper and went back upstairs.

Stupid me, I started thinking. Were we in high school or what? The sad truth is that I kind of get off on this juvenile kind of mating dance. I figured that if he followed me upstairs, it would be a match made in...um, heaven? We were, after all, in a club called Angel's. Moments later, he appeared and introduced himself properly as Hernan. We talked some more, and then he floored me. He told me that we'd met about six months earlier in an after-hours club (no doubt Jeffrey and I had gone there to cap off one of our famously debauched nights out), and we'd spent some, ahem, quality time together.

"En serio?" I asked. "Sin duda," he answered. (Translation: You bet your bottom peso!) My first thought was to wonder how many whiscolas I must have had that night to not even remember our not-so-brief encounter. Yes, I thought he looked a little familiar when I first saw him in Angel's--but more in that typically handsome Argentine way. (That's not him in the photo, by the way, but you get my drift.) My second thought was at least I'm consistent in my taste.

We ended up spending some more quality time together between the lower-level bathroom and dancefloor (it's not the Eiffel Tower, but this wasn't exactly An Affair To Remember) before parting ways with the promise to see each other again, maybe even go out on a proper date. As I headed to the dancefloor where I spent the next hour or so with my friend Ricardo, burning off my whiscola buzz and all those alcohol calories, visions of Hernan's tousled curly hair were dancing in my head. I wondered if he'd actually call. I'm not holding my breath. And even if he does, Argentine men don't really do dates. But I'm sure I'll see him again. One way or another. And next time, he won't be just another beautiful stranger.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE?

My favorite Sex and the City moment (I'm talking about the series, not the movie, which I hated) came at the end of an episode in which a middle-aged friend of the girls got hitched to an obviously gay man played by Nathan Lane (above, with Sarah Jessica Parker). To be honest, I don't recall much about the episode. I watched it in a drowsy fog halfway through a trans-Atlantic flight from London to New York. I think the pal was pregnant, although I can't say for sure. But during the voiceover at the end, Carrie Bradshaw woke me up with something she said about her friends and their search for Mr. Right:

"Some people are settling down. Some people are settling. And some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies."

A-ha! I thought. That's it. The secret of love. That's exactly what I should be doing.

But holding out for butterflies is hard work. Butterflies are free, and they aren't particularly easy to catch. I've never settled down (at 39, I've yet to even live with a guy), but despite repeating the last part of Carrie's observation over and over in my head through the years, I've continued to settle.

Big time. Especially in Buenos Aires. Here I've tangled with guys I wouldn't have given a first thought to in New York. Guys nearly half my age. Guys with no discernible means of income. Guys with a lack of upper education. Guys who wore tennis shoes on first dates. Guys who lived with their mothers! My God, the last guy I went out with was 33 years old, wore tennis shoes without socks and was still living at home! What was I thinking?

Then a few weeks ago, I figured it out. I was reading an article about one of those MTV reality shows, I think The Hills, and one of the female stars dropped this little pearl of ungrammatical wisdom: "I would never date a guy who I wouldn't want to break up with."

A-ha! I thought. That's it. The secret of love. That's exactly what I should be thinking.

But let's face it: That's settling with a capital S. Sure your heart will stay safe and sound, but as my mom used to say, "If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas." Ok, that might be a little harsh, but date below your standards and months after the fact you may have to sit through a PDA featuring your ex and some random ugly guy (see 14 posts below). Yikes! A good friend of mine in BA recently was dating a guy for whom she obviously had no strong feelings. He was a nice guy, she insisted (too much), but when she talked about him, there was absolutely no spark in her voice. I mentioned Carrie's comment about "holding out for butterflies" and cautioned her against settling. But in my mind, I thought about that girl from the reality show and wondered if perhaps my friend was doing the right thing.

It wasn't an issue for long. She recently broke up with Mr. Not Quite Right but kept him on the side as a friend with benefits. Then at the party we went to on Friday night (see four posts below), lightning struck. She met a cool guy. When I left the party, they were immersed in conversation. He invited her back to his place, just "to sleep," but she declined. ("Yeah, I've heard that one before," I told her, glad that she had played the right cards.) They had their first date on Monday night. Her synopsis: Not only did he pick her up in his car although the restaurant was right across the street from his house, he presented her with a book that she'd talked about on the night they had met, and he, in her words, "quickly and quietly" paid for dinner.

"I think I'm falling for him," were the first words she said to me after the date, before the synopsis. Being a very level-headed person, she objectively laid out his good and not-so-good points. But still, he had her at hello--or maybe it was when he gave her the book.

Yesterday, they went to the zoo. I can't think of a more perfect second date. In January, I had a great first date at the zoo with a guy who was pretty cool except for a few irritating things--one of which was that he, you know, lived with his mom. Anyway, between my pangs of jealousy, I came up with a few words of advice for my friend, who is still hanging out with her ex-turned-friend-with-benefits as well as another guy she recently met who has a blond mohawk. "Don't put all your eggs in one basket," I told her when she worried about the karmic implications of seeing three guys at once.

Yes, yes, I know. The cliché police will be banging on my door any second now. Still, those words seemed so sage six years ago when my friend Lori uttered them to a mutual friend of ours. Lori and I had met Simon, her husband-to-be, over Memorial Day weekend, a week or two earlier, in London. At the time, she was at the tail end of a casual relationship with another guy. As she told me the story a few days later, she and our mutual friend were having lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and moments later, the friend opened her fortune cookie. The message inside: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."

A-ha! I thought. That's it. The secret of love. That's exactly what I shouldn't be doing.

The truth: I've done--and not done--all of the above. And it's gotten me...absolutely nowhere. In the end, when it comes to love, the best advice is this: There are no rules. So break every one of them--and hope for the best.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

HOT BUTTERED SOUL

All this talk about covers got me thinking about a story Dusty Springfield, one of pop's all-time best interpretive singers, once told me during a telephone interview. She said that Aretha had first been offered what turned out to be Dusty's signature song, "Son Of A Preacher Man, but turned it down. Dusty snatched it up, and the rest is recording history (and perhaps the main reason Dusty is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame today). Years later, Dusty met Aretha for the first and only time in an elevator. The door opened, and there stood Aretha in all her Queen of Soul glory. She stepped into the lift and after a few moments, turned around, put her hand on Dusty's shoulder and simply said, "Girl!" That's all, folks! "I just about fell out!" Dusty recalled, with a laugh.

Aretha eventually got around to recording "Son Of A Preacher Man" and Dusty said she so admired what Aretha did to it that she began singing it Aretha-style in concert. How's that for things coming full circle? I have a picture of Dusty and me taken in New York City's Sony Building at the record release party for her final album, A Very Fine Love, in 1995. I retrieved it from storage when I was in NYC. Once I scan it, I'll post it.

This past weekend we lost two fine performers, Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes. I always admired Bernie's stern and salty brand of comedy, particularly on his TV series, The Bernie Mac Show. And what can I say about Isaac Hayes that hasn't been said over and over? There was so much more to him than the "Theme From Shaft," for which he won an Oscar, and Chef on TV's South Park. His late-'60s and early '70s work ushered in both the era of disco and the age of indulgent bedroom soul. Like George Michael and Dolly Parton, he was both a gifted songwriter (he contributed to Dionne Warwick's 1979 commercial comeback by cowriting the Grammy-winning classic "Deja Vu") and interpreter. RIP, Bernie and Issac.

And on a final note regarding covers, here is Isaac's 1969 slowburn-soul overhaul of Glen Campbell's 1967 country and pop hit "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (download here).

COVER ME, PART TWO

More favorite pop songs redux...
Anne Murray
(pictured with, from left, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Mickey Dolenz) "You Won't See Me": Anne once personally told me an often-reported story about how Lennon told her that it was his favorite remake of a Beatles song. If it's good enough for him...

David Cook "Always Be My Baby": I bet Mariah Carey never even realized that she'd written a stalker song from the stalker's point of view (see first video below).

Dolly Parton "I Will Always Love You": OK, so Dolly wrote and recorded it in 1974, but the version she did for the 1982 film The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas trumps both her own original and Whitney Houston's bombastic megahit Bodyguard remake. (P.S. Dolly's saloon-country take on the traditional folk classic "The House Of The Rising Sun," a Top 20 country hit in 1981, is my favorite.)

Goo Goo Dolls & Fred Durst: A band I never liked and the frontman of a band I never liked (Limp Bizkit) united to create a truly magical moment on the post-9/11 telethon America: A Tribute To Heroes (see second video below). I cried. En serio. I'm sure anyone who saw either of the towers go down en vivo, as I did, bawled like a baby.

Great White "Once Bitten, Twice Shy": A solo track from Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter reworked into my favorite '80s hair metal hit.

Juice Newton "Break It To Me Gently": Absolute torch and twang. A huge improvement over Brenda Lee's 1962 No. 2 hit, which already was pretty formidable.

Olivia Newton-John "Come On Over": Anyone who dismisses the Bee Gees as disco relics should remember that their songs have been covered successfully in multiple genres, including pop, R&B (Destiny's Child's "Emotion"), new wave (Diana Ross' "Eaten Alive") and, here, first-rate country.

The Pointer Sisters "Fire": Bruce Springsteen tried to reclaim his composition on his 1985 live album, but this smoking song will forever be a Pointers joint.

Trailer Bride "Fujiama Mama": Old-school country transformed into eerie cutting-edge alt rock for the tribute album Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration Of Wanda Jackson. The first time I heard it was on the jukebox at Phoenix, a divey rock & roll gay bar in New York City. (Damn, BA could sure use one of those!) I texted myself the title so I wouldn't forget to download it on iTunes when I got home.

Vanessa Williams "Work To Do": It takes guts to tackle the Isley Brothers. It takes something more like immense talent to match them.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

COME ON BABY, COVER ME

The art of interpretation gets no respect. We diss singers like Celine Dion and Whitney Houston for not writing their own material and extol the virtues of anyone who plays an instrument or writes songs regardless of how badly they do either--or both. Lest we forget, some of the greatest musical talents of the last century--Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, et al--spent their entire musical careers singing other people's songs. So in celebrating the art of interpretation, I pay tribute to 1o of my all-time favorite remakes--singers performing songs written and previously recorded by other people. (I'm leaving out Mary J. Blige and U2's reworking of U2's "One" because I already discussed it extensively in another post.) Let the countdown--which, by the way, is in alphabetical order, by artist--begin.

Annie Lennox (above) "Thin Line Between Love & Hate": When Annie released her covers album, Medusa, in 1995, she was accused of having run out of musical ideas. But a rethink is in order. In my opinion, Medusa ranks as one of the best albums of its kind, with Annie claiming songs by Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bob Marley, the Clash and this golden 1971 oldie by the Persuaders (remade as an anodyne ballad by the Pretenders in the '80s). Listen closely to the lyrics. They aren't pretty. God bless Annie for accentuating the love and the hate by ending the song on such a menacing note.

Aretha Franklin "Bridge Over Troubled Water" I also adore what she did to the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic "I Say A Little Prayer," but if "Respect" hadn't already done the trick four years earlier, when Aretha took this Simon and Garfunkel classic to church in 1971, she cemented her place as the Queen of Soul.

Chaka Khan "I Feel For You" The best-ever revamp of a Prince song. Period. (Sorry, Sinead!) Extra credit for being one of if not the first R&B hit to feather a guest rapper, Melle Mel. Where would contemporary R&B and hip hop be without Chaka Chaka Chaka Chaka Khan?

Conway Twitty "Rest Your Love On Me" It's elegant, it's understated, and it features one of Conway's most heartfelt vocals. The only thing country about this 1981 Bee Gee's cover is probably Conway, but who cares? Major props for taking an obscure track from the Brothers Gibb's 1979 Spirits Having Flown album and spinning it into a No. 1 country hit.

D'Angelo "Cruisin'": I remember listening to this on my Discman at the gym back in the pre-iPod mid-'90s. It always made me want to rip off my sweaty gym clothes and start bumping and grinding on the treadmill. Ah, the memories! Better than Smokey Robinson's original, and that's saying a lot. Where in the world are you, D'Angelo? The music's no good without you.

George Michael "Miss Sarajevo": An excellent interpretive singer who also happens to be one of pop's greatest living songwriters, this version of the U2/Luciano Pavarotti song from his 1999 Songs From The Last Century covers album blew away everything else on it.

Kim Carnes "More Love" There's much more to Kim than "Bette Davis Eyes," her massive 1981 No. 1 hit. Another Smokey Robinson cover, this preceded Kim's signature tune into the Top 10 by one year. What I love so much about her performance is how truly overjoyed she sounds. For an emotion that is supposed to be all about ecstasy, songs about love are rarely performed with much of it. Kim's joy is contagious, and there's even more of it in repeated listening.

Marvin Gaye "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" Yes, the year before Marvin released what was to become his greatest hit, Gladys Knight & the Pips took a rollicking barely recognizable gospel version to No. 2 on the pop chart. By infusing the Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong composition with elements of mystery, paranoia and sensuality, Marvin, who actually recorded his version before Gladys and her Pips, made it immortal.

Nancy Sinatra "Let Me Kiss You" With a vocal assist from Morrissey, who wrote the song and released it as a single in the UK on the same day that Nancy released her version, Frank's little girl built on the quiet longing of Morrisey's Top 10 version. (Nancy's stalled at No. 46.) Foregoing Morrissey's wink-wink tendencies, she played it more straightforward, adding shades of desperate, weary and just a touch of creepy.

Tori Amos "Bonnie & Clyde '97" I don't know how she did it, but Tori not only beat Eminem at his own game, she made his song about a guy who offs his wife and disposes of the body in front of their daughter at once disturbing and sexy.

No post about remakes would be complete without an honorable mention of Luther Vandross, perhaps pop and R&B's greatest-ever interpretive singer. Also a skilled songwriter, every Luther CD included at least one total overhaul of some pop or R&B chesnut. Interestingly, when he finally got around to recording an actual covers album, 1994's Songs, the collection failed to wow as much as his remakes did in single doses. Here are my five favorite Luther covers (followed by the singers who made them hits):

1. "Superstar/Until You Come Back To Me" (The Carpenters/Stevie Wonder) (see video below)
2. "Creepin'" (Stevie Wonder)
3. "Knocks Me Off My Feet" (Stevie Wonder)
4. "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (Dionne Warwick)
5. "A House Is Not A Home" (Dionne Warwick)

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

WORDS GET IN THE WAY

On Friday night, I experienced one of my greatest fears: conversational writer's block. I was not amused.

The backstory: I went to the house warming-slash-birthday party of my friends Hollie (birthday girl) and her boyfriend, Caspar. The evening had begun innocently enough. A few friends and I polished off two bottles of white wine during a pre-party at my apartment. Then we headed over to Hollie and Caspar's. About an hour into the party, I had switched to rum and Diet Coke and was starting to hear myself stumble over my words. But I was in great form, doing some light flirting and keeping everyone around me good and entertained.

Then he showed up. A former friend of Hollie who had basically ripped her apart several months ago and hadn't bothered to speak--or apologize--to her since. He hadn't been invited to the party, but as they have friends in common, it wasn't surprising that he'd heard about it. His presence annoyed me, but I held my tongue. At first. Somewhere between giving my speech (at Caspar's request) and my umpteenth rum concoction, I approached the ex-friend. We'd only met once before, but I'd heard a lot about him (mostly negative) and he of me (all positive, which probably compounded his insecurities). I can't remember what we talked about, but at some point, it became very clear to me that he was misconstruing everything I said in a negative way because he was in such a defensive mode (gay men are a lot like women when standing face-to-face with someone by whom they feel threatened).

I took the bait. I demanded to know why he was there. Was he so desperate for a social life that he had to crash the party of someone he apparently hated and who despised him? And why was he such a tired, old, bitchy queen in the first place? I wasn't being as eloquent and clever as I wanted to be, but that didn't stop me. Then he called me stupid. I. Lost. It. Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and nobody calls me stupid and gets away with it. I put up my dukes and challenged him to take his fighting words outside. I was shocked by what was leaving my mouth; words were flooding out without my wanting them to. I didn't seem to have any control over them, and worse, they lacked the normal stinging punch of my verbal putdowns. Too many glasses of wine and too many rum and Diet Cokes had conspired to make my verbal skills totally shaky. So I entered full-on thug mode. Finally, I understood why those playground bullies who always resorted to violence were never masters of language.

I eventually pulled myself together and walked away--without throwing a punch. But this thing was far from over. I sashayed over to Caspar and Hollie and, in moment worthy of All My Children's Erica Kane, gave them an ultimatum: He leaves or I do! Minutes later, Caspar was showing him the door. I felt somewhat vindicated, but the incident had cast a huge shadow over the night. I wasn't upset because some clown didn't like me. As my brother once said, life is not a popularity contest. And I was less bothered than I probably should have been by the way that I had lost my temper. What really sent me reeling was the fact that I had lost control of the language. For a writer, there is no greater hell.

The next day, my friends, the host and hostess, announced that they were "on a break." I wasn't surprised, but I was truly disappointed. I felt that the way they had backed me up the night before had really cemented our friendship, and I'm still convinced that Caspar is a real keeper, the only one I've met since I moved to Buenos Aires (not surprisingly, he's British, not Argentine). I only hope they've clearly defined the meaning of "on a break." Words--whether it's a lack of them or a misunderstanding of them--clearly do damage. Look what it did to me. Look what it did to Ross and Rachel on Friends.

Friday, August 8, 2008

TWO TO MAKE IT RIGHT, SEGUNDA PARTE

Because I like to give credit where it's due, as an addendum to the previous post, I want to acknowledge 10 more of my favorite vocal collaborations. (Then, I promise, I'll drop the subject.) Acclaimed as these individual performers may be, Kylie, Bjork and Mellencamp are the only ones I would classify as true stars at the time of said pairing--Thom Yorke is only a star in the context of Radiohead--so these songs don't quite qualify as exceptions to the Conspiracy Theory Effect.

  1. "Where The Wild Roses Grow" Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds & Kylie Minogue (pictured)
  2. "Broken Homes" Tricky featuring PJ Harvey (see video below)
  3. "This Mess We're In" PJ Harvey featuring Thom Yorke
  4. "I've Seen It All" Bjork featuring Thom Yorke
  5. "Oops" 808 State featuring Bjork
  6. "Better Things" Massive Attack featuring Tracey Thorn
  7. "Setting Sun" The Chemical Brothers featuring Noel Gallagher
  8. "Wild Night" John Mellencamp & Me'shell Ndegéocello
  9. "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart" Marc Almond & Gene Pitney
  10. "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield

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TWO TO MAKE IT RIGHT

The other day I talked about the Conspiracy Theory Effect and how sometimes the sum of two huge talents isn't greater than the parts. But there are always exceptions to the rule, right? Occasionally, when two stars collide the result is explosive in all the right ways. (Country doesn't count. From Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty to Tammy Wynette and George Jones to Kenny Rogers and Dottie West, the genre has a long tradition of stars who moonlight as commercially and creatively successful duet partners.) Read on.

  • "What's It Gonna Be?" Busta Rhymes featuring Janet Jackson: I've never been much of a Janet fan. She strains to be sexy, as if she's trying to say, "Look, I'm all grown up--and I have (great) sex!" Janet, you're fortysomething now. Move on. Here we get her in just the right dose (small), and Busta Rhymes' characteristically brilliant rap helps make Janet's wildest dream (to actually sound sexy) come true.
  • "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me"/"Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves" Aretha Franklin & George Michael/Aretha Franklin & Eurythmics: The Queen of Soul meets the King and Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul. A pair of royal flushes.
  • "Runaway Train" Elton John & Eric Clapton: A gospel-blues throwdown from 1992's The One, one of Elton's better latter-day albums. I wish he and Eric would put their kinda lame solo careers on hold long enough to record an entire CD together.
  • "I Don't Do Duets" Patti LaBelle & Gladys Knight (see custom YouTube video below): Another pair who should record an entire album together. On this collaboration from Patti's Grammy-winning 1991 Burnin' CD, Gladys, who has never had a weak vocal moment in her life, inspires Patti to reign in her over-the-top tendencies. Patti had another mmm, yes moment on the same album with "I Hear Your Voice," a heartbreaking electro-soul ballad produced and co-written by Prince (more on him below).
  • "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)"/"What Kind of a Fool" Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb: Barbra does disco and Barry with equal gusto.
  • "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"/"Leather And Lace"/"Two Kinds of Love" Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers/Stevie Nicks & Don Henley/Stevie Nicks & Bruce Hornsby: Stevie might be the greatest harmony singer in rock. If she ever gets around to recording a duets CD a la Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Reba McEntire (it would be huge!), I'm so there.
  • Painted From Memory (CD) Elvis Costello & Burt Bacharach: Memo to Elvis and Burt: Get thee to a recording studio with Dionne Warwick, pronto! Download: "This House Is Empty Now"
  • "Don't Give Up" Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush: Two singular, left-of-center talents unite to create a stunning, classic-sounding ballad that could have been the love theme to the The Grapes of Wrath.
  • "As"/"One"/"Whenever I Call Your Name"/"I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" Mary J. Blige & George Michael/Mary J. Blige & U2 (above)/Mary J. Blige & Sting/Mary J. Blige & Elton John: Mary has a way with the Brits. The highlight here is "One," which she and U2 initially performed on the Hurricane Katrina relief TV telethon in 2005 and then recorded for her The Breakthrough CD. She brings a soulful hurt and anger to the song and illuminates the lyrics in a way U2 never did on their own song.

An honorable mention must go to singer-songwriter-producer Prince for helping to make Sheena Easton ("Sugar Walls"), Kate Bush ("Why Should I Love You?"), Madonna ("Love Song"), Celine Dion ("With This Tear") and the aforementioned Patti LaBelle look even better. Too bad his and Michael Jackson's attempt to meld their individual genius in the '80s fell apart due to their two--and too--huge egos.

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