Monday, July 30, 2012

1978: The Best Year in Music Ever?

I never particularly cared for "1979," the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins single (and the band's biggest pop hit, with a No. 12 peak on Billboard's Hot 100). It had less do with the song's musical merit, or lack thereof, than it did with the fact that I always thought it was set one year too early.

Ah, 1978! The best year of my life -- at least the first decade of it! I can't pinpoint a specific reason why I remember 1978 so fondly. It's perhaps partly because 1977-1978 is the first period of my life that I can actually remember -- at least in more than bits and pieces. I couldn't tell you what I was doing exactly 34 years ago today, but for the most part, when 1978 replays in my mind, it's in feature-length motion pictures, not snapshots or short films.

And then there's the music: the songs I remember listening to all the time when I was riding with my mom and dad in our brown 1978 Ford Thunderbird. The year and its soundtrack would grow in significance six years later when I bought a book based on Casey Kasem's America's Top 40 radio countdown show that featured biographies and singles discographies (complete with peak positions) for every artist who hit the Top 40 that year. (A few vintage shirts aside, the book, currently locked in a cabinet in Buenos Aires, might be my oldest possession.)

It's strange how back then, in 1984, 1978 already seemed like such a long time ago -- far more distant than 2006 seems now. The Year of Big Brother, otherwise known as the year in which I had a subscription to Billboard magazine (a Christmas of '83 gift from my mom), was more memorable musically than 1978 because of my reading material, but by 1984, I was old enough to be a discerning music listener who loved songs based more on musical attributes than on overexposure. (We heard them on the radio, on TV, and on those K-Tel compilations that were the late-'70s early '80s equivalent of today's Now That's What I Call Music! series.) As a result, there are far more songs I love from 1978 than 1984.

Regardless of why I love them, though, all these years later, the best of 1978 sticks with me. Interestingly, many of the pop songs from 1978 that I remember most fondly were performed by either one-hit wonders or by artists who are more or less forgotten today. Here are 10 of many that are still in regular rotation on my iPod (a list I've been meaning to compile ever since I included Jefferson Starship's "Count on Me" and Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel," both '78 classics, in my Songs of Faith and Devotion post back in March).

"Hot Child in the City" Nick Gilder I always thought a woman sang it until I saw Gilder's picture in my Casey Kasem book.


"Magnet and Steel" Walter Egan I may have been only 8 going on 9, but even then, its sex appeal wasn't completely lost on me.


"Thunder Island" Jay Ferguson Honestly, I don't actually remember hearing this back in '78, but today I love the verses' faux-tropical-vacation feel, an amped of version of the wasting-away-in-margaritaville vibe that rubs me the wrong way in so many Jimmy Buffett songs.


"Change of Heart" Eric Carmen How strange that one of the more successful pop songwriters of the '70s and early '80s (at one point in the fall of '77, three of his compositions were on Billboard's Hot 100 at the same time) might be best known today for hit singles that borrowed from a dead classical composer whose work I was struggling to play during my piano lessons at the time (Rachmaninoff, quoted on "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again"), and a song from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack ("Hungry Eyes") that he didn't even write.


"Emotion" Samantha Sang Destiny's Child so didn't do it justice in 2001. Stick with Sang's original version of the song that Barry and Robin Gibb wrote for her, which was released in December of 1977 and covered on the B-side of Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams' 1978 No. 1 single "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late." Fun fact: Sang's 1978 Emotion LP featured her version of Carmen's "Change of Heart."


"I Love the Nightlife" Alicia Bridges I love the way she growls "ackSHUN!" (as in "action!") on the verses almost as much as I love the nightlife, too.


"You Belong to Me" Carly Simon For some reason, I can't listen to this song without thinking about Barbra Streisand's "My Heart Belong to Me," which was a Top 5 hit the previous year. I love how possessive the leading ladies of pop were back then. Coming right after 1977's "Nobody Does It Better," it was the second half of one of the best one-two singles punches in the history of recorded pop music.


"Talking in Your Sleep" Crystal Gayle Between hits by Dolly Parton ("Here You Come Again," "It's All Right, But It's Okay," "Heartbreaker"), Anne Murray ("You Needed Me," "I Just Fall in Love Again," "Shadows in the Moonlight," "Broken Hearted Me"), Olivia Newton-John ("Hopelessly Devoted to You"), Linda Ronstadt ("Blue Bayou") and Gayle ("Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "When I Dream," "Half the Way" and this), 1977-1979 easily qualifies as the golden age of female crossover country-pop.


"Used ta Be My Girl" The O'Jays Along with 1977 hits by Barry White ("It's Ecstasy [When You Lay Down Next to Me]"), LTD ("Every Time I Turn Around [Back in Love Again]"), the Commodores ("Brick House") and Tavares ("More Than a Woman") and 1978 Top 40 singles by Teddy Pendergrass ("Close the Door") and Earth, Wind & Fire ("Fantasy"), this represented the best of late '70s male-sung soul music. (Fun fact: E,W&F's "Fantasy" has been covered by, among many others, Pedro Escovedo, the father of Sheila E. and Peter Michael Escovedo, the biological father of Nicole Richie, which makes her Sheila E.'s niece!)


"Sweet Talkin' Woman" Electric Light Orchestra After Chicago (whose "Baby What A Big Surprise" was released a few months too early to be featured here), ELO was easily my favorite pop-rock band of the '70s.


"Isn't It Time" The Babys It was technically released in 1977, but it had enough of a chart presence in '78 to be included in the Casey Kasem book, so I'm including it, too. Lead Baby John Waite may have been the very first male rocker I can remember wanting to do, which made the personal note that he sent me in the '90s all the more exciting. (Click here to find out why he wrote to me.) One of my favorite things about this No. 13 hit is how he sings off melody on the chorus (he was the first white guy I ever heard do that), which, of course, is now a much-used R&B tactic by every female singer with a drop of soul, from Christina Aguilera to Mary J. Blige.


15 (7+8) More Reasons Why I Love Music from 1978 (Minus country, which would need a blog post of its own)

"Night Fever" Bee Gees
"Take a Chance on Me" ABBA
"If I Can't Have You" Yvonne Elliman I used to get into arguments with my best friend in sixth grade because he insisted that Andy Gibb was singing what was by then already a golden oldie.


"MacArthur Park" Donna Summer
"Still the Same" Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
"Baker Street" Gerry Rafferty Featuring the best sax solo ever.


"Chip Away the Stone" Aerosmith
"Being Boiled" Human League
"Hong Kong Garden" Siouxsie and the Banshees Naturally, I wasn't into Siouxsie yet in 1978, but how cool would that have made me?


"It's a Heartache" Bonnie Tyler
"Our Love" Natalie Cole
"Running on Empty" Jackson Browne '80s babies who know him best from "Somebody's Baby" and "Lawyers in Love" don't even know.


"Take Me I'm Yours" Squeeze
"Killing an Arab" The Cure
"Wuthering Heights" Kate Bush She was only 18 when she wrote her debut single, which proves that teens are capable of so much more than Justin Bieber might lead you to believe.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

It Ain't Easy Buying "Green"

Right color, wrong song!
First of all, listen to your mother. She was right. As the victim of several robberies over the course of my lifetime, I can back up everything she's said about how it's wrong to steal.

But then, not all thievery is created equal. There's a huge difference between breaking into someone's house and hauling off everything of value inside of it, and illegally downloading the latest Katy Perry single.

Two wrongs don't make a right, but it's not like Katy Perry isn't going to be just fine. And sometimes I wonder if the music industry isn't asking for it. Why do retailers sometimes make it so frustratingly difficult to legally acquire music that falls outside of the mainstream (Don't get me started on what I used to go through to get my Robyn imports back before "With Every Heartbeat" made her hot outside of her native Sweden), especially if, like me, you don't live in the English-speaking world? I recently discovered just how tough it can be when I tried to buy "(It Ain't Easy Being) Green" -- not the Kermit the Frog classic (note the clever use of parentheses), but a song from Shannon McNally's 2002 debut album Jukebox Sparrows.

At the time of Jukebox Sparrows' release, McNally's label, Capitol Records, sent me a complimentary copy of the CD for review, and I immediately fell in love with track five. The album never went anywhere, and when I got rid of all of my CDs a few years ago, McNally's was one of them. Unwisely, though, I forgot to copy that magical song to my computer, and it's been something of an obsession ever since it randomly popped into my head at some point last year.

After searching for it in vain on YouTube, I tracked it down on Grooveshark, a website where you can stream a variety of songs by various artists. The only problem is that to enjoy the song, I had to listen to it on my computer. I couldn't take it on the run during my thrice-weekly jogging treks around Lumpini Park. And making matters worse, after months of being at the mercy of Grooveshark, my song recently mysteriously disappeared from the website.

If I wanted to listen to it, I'd have to buy it. First, I tried to download it on iTunes. Unfortunately, although I'm living in Bangkok, I'm still connected to the iTunes store in Argentina, and was able to make purchases there only. In order to access the U.S. store to buy music there, I would have to create a new iTunes account and change my location -- annoying but doable. Or so I thought: In order to create an account in any country, you must have a credit card with a billing address in that country. Since both of my credit cards are billed to my Buenos Aires address, I was stuck in Argentina, though living in Bangkok and craving a U.S. connection.

It's bad enough that iTunes restricts where you can play the music that you purchase there. Do they have to make it so complicated to buy it in the first place?

Next up, Amazon. Strike two! The Amazon store wasn't available in Thailand. Neither were several of the other digital-music retailers that I tried. I was beginning to think that the only way I would ever get to go running with my song blasting in my ears would be if I brought my laptop with me.

Then I remembered 7digital, the UK-based digital-media retailer whose website I used to log on to whenever I wanted to buy new British music that wasn't yet available in the U.S. back when I lived there. Finally, my luck was changing. Not only was Shannon McNally's debut album available for download in 7digital's U.S. store, but there were no international restrictions, and I didn't need a U.S. billing address to use my credit card (or PayPal) to buy my song for $1.49. That's 20 cents more than it was on iTunes and 50 cents more than on Amazon, but you get what you pay more for, right?

I hate to admit it, but had 7 Digital not come through for me, I may have been forced to resort to stealing. It's not right, but it's okay --- especially when the music industry puts me at such a disadvantage when I want to legally purchase music that falls outside of the parameters of Top 40. It's bad enough that Bangkok only seems to get the Hollywood blockbusters that I'm not interested in seeing. Must I be forced to buy only bad music, too?

We've come a long way from the days when the only way to acquire import music was to shell out at least $30 for it at some specialty record store on Bleecker Street in New York City. One would think that by eliminating the need for shipping and handling, digital music would have made international distribution easier, but I suspect that the music industry remains bogged down in it's own legal red tape when the top priority should be getting music to whomever wants to hear it, regardless of where they live.

Now that I got what I wanted, I'm once again heeding what my mother used to say: It's always good to share. To that end, I created a YouTube video for "(It Ain't Easy Being) Green" by Shannon McNally so that everyone can hear what all my fuss was about. Is it worth all of the effort it took for me to get it?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Do Famous Women Always Cheat for Love?

"There is a huge gender double standard when it comes to cheating. If you ask me (and you didn't, I realize), it all comes down to the general perception of how men and women have sex. I'm stereotyping and generalizing here, but men need a physical connection. Women need an emotional connection. There's a reason that there's no such thing as Viagra for women. (Well, save for dark chocolate. That might count.) So, perhaps we find it easier to forgive someone who is 'in love' rather than 'in lust' because lust is more fleeting than love."

That's the intelligent and provocative response of one of my favorite bloggers, a woman, to my recent post "What 'Fatal Attraction' Taught Me About Love, Cheating and the Battle of the Sexes 25 Years Later." When I wrote that post, I was referring to men and women in film, not venturing into the realm of reality, in Hollywood or beyond. But today, it's hard not to. Not with Kristen Stewart, 22, ending her long silence about the nature of her relationship with her Twilight costar Robert Pattinson, 26, by announcing to the entire world that she cheated on him.

I mean, what straight celebrity comes out like this? Who finally acknowledges that she has indeed been involved with a costar for several years by issuing an official statement apologizing for cheating on him (in Stewart's case, with Rupert Sanders, 41, the married director of her recent film Snow White & the Huntsman)? I would have put my money on a tryst with her Snow White costar Chris Hemsworth, as most of the tabloids previously had, which adds to the intrigue.

Was her intention to protect her public image while humiliating Pattinson even further? Or perhaps she felt she had no other choice since Us Weekly -- a magazine for which I was a senior editor for two years -- slapped her and Sanders on the cover and ran pictures of them engaging in something far more intimate than acceptable boss-employee rapport.

"I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I've caused to those close to me and everyone this has affected. This momentary indiscretion has jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry."

So wrote Stewart in her statement, and she's not the first famous woman to feel that way. Women in Hollywood have been not standing my their men for decades, as I pointed out two years ago in the post "Do Famous Women Cheat?". In 1949, when Ingrid Bergman, then married to Petter Lindstrom, had an affair with director Roberto Rossellini (and got pregnant, too!), she became persona non grata in Hollywood and went into self-imposed exile for seven years. Upon her return, she won the second of three Oscars, Best Actress for 1956's Anastasia, and was greeted like a homecoming queen.

When Elizabeth Taylor dumped Eddie Fischer for Richard Burton after an affair on the set of the 1963 film Cleopatra, she launched one of Hollywood's greatest love stories ever told (onscreen or off), somehow managing to sidestep any major professional repercussions. Times had changed in Hollywood.

Meg Ryan's career nosedived following her fling with Russell Crowe on the set of 2000's Proof of Life, but that had more to do with poor professional choices on her part than bad choices in her marriage to Dennis Quaid. In 2002, Jennifer Lopez upgraded from hubby Cris Judd to Ben Affleck and became an even bigger superstar. More recently, Tori Spelling and LeAnn Rimes have found that there is indeed life after cheating on their husbands with married men. Spelling even got her own short-lived reality TV series, 2006's So NoTORIous, out of it.

Though Rimes did receive some flack when Self magazine put her on the October 2010 cover (How dare they after Rimes left her husband for actor Eddie Cibrian, a married man?), prompting the editor-in-chief to apologize in an email to subscribers, none of these women had to/will have to spend the rest of their careers wearing a scarlet letter (A is for Adulteress). And as far as I know, none of them went into damage-control mode by issuing a public mea culpa as quickly as Stewart did.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but from where I'm sitting (and typing), Stewart actually isn't looking so bad. Not that I'm condoning on-the-set affairs (though I must wonder, what do Hollywood couples expect when actors and actresses spend so much time on movie sets, away from significant others, in close quarters with temptation?), but for the first time ever, I actually find Stewart kind of interesting. Not only because she's human like the rest of us, but because I'm not 100 percent convinced that her public apology was entirely well-intentioned. (Poor Rob!) She's not so snow white, after all!

As I pondered my reaction, it hit me: Oh my God, I'm doing it, too! Would my reaction to this story be the same if Pattinson had been the one caught on camera with his hands in another woman's goodies jar? I doubt that this will have much of a negative effect on Stewart's career. She'll get tons of coverage in the weekly tabloid magazines, and by extension her next films, On the Road and Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn -- Part 2, will get a huge profile boost. Not that the latter needed one.

I'm fairly certain that if Pattinson were walking in Stewart's stilettos, he'd be in a far worse place professionally. Any actor would be. Perhaps it's because when men cheat, they tend to do it so much more flagrantly and tastelessly (see Jude Law and the nanny, Sandra Bullock's ex, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, and too many others to list). Women tend to go about their indiscretions less shamelessly, though I'm not sure why Stewart and Sanders didn't just get a room -- and stay in it! -- and why attached Hollywood women almost always seem to go for married men.

But does Stewart deserve the pardon that fictional female cheaters always seem to get? From the coverage I've seen thus far (and from her carefully worded statement, if we are to take it at face value), there is nothing that would indicate that Stewart and Sanders' "momentary indiscretion" -- her words, not mine -- was about much more than sex.

At least Bergman, Taylor, Spelling and Rimes married the guys with whom they cheated. If Stewart is not in love with Sanders, did she wreck her relationship with one of the most desirable guys in movies -- and, presumably, Sanders' marriage -- just for sex? And will the public forgive her for cheating if it wasn't all about love? Stay tuned. Hollywood's battle of the sexes is about to get a lot more interesting.

"Can You Forgive Her?" Pet Shop Boys

Death Music: Songs About the End

Let's talk about the three Ds: dying, dead and death. (Ooh, let the fun and games begin, right?)

I have such a complicated relationship with them. If we're talking dead, as in not being alive, as opposed to death, the moment when life ends, I'm good. I figure that being dead must be a lot like sleeping. As long as I don't see it coming, there's nothing to fear but fear itself -- and a corpse that isn't discovered until days, or weeks, later.

Which brings us to the moments before when life ends, which is an entirely different and terrifying beast. I probably spend an unhealthy, inordinate amount of time wondering and worrying about it. A palm reader once told me that I will live a lengthy life that will end in a prolonged illness. I'm not sure how I feel about the prospect of living past 78, but I'd definitely pass on the long goodbye. Now I get to spend the rest of my life not looking forward to an extended farewell tour.

And then what?

My brother and I recently had the most morbid conversation about songs we'd like to have played at our funeral. At one point, I was set on Sarah Brightman's version of "Time to Say Goodbye" (her solo version, without Andra Bocelli), but now I think I'd prefer for the funeral planner to surprise me.


To be completely honest, though, I'd rather skip the funeral entirely and head straight to the afterlife, not that I'm 100 percent convinced that there's going to be one. You know, I hate goodbyes, and if I'm going to spend months before I expire saying them, I'd rather just rest in peace and quiet than have to lie still through yet another round of them. But if there's music involved, I'll reconsider. I may not be able to dance to it, but half the fun of having a party is in planning the soundtrack.

During that same conversation with my brother, he suggested that I do a post on goodbye songs. I haven't gotten around to it as of yet, though I did include three "goodbye" songs in another post a few months ago. For now, I guess that this -- my personal death wish playlist -- comes close enough, for what is death but the ultimate, and final, goodbye?

"Death's Door" Depeche Mode "Death is everywhere, there are flies on the windscreen for a start..." Oops, wrong song. This is an even better song, from the 1991 Until the End of the World soundtrack, an essential death album and until Trainspotting came along five years later, my favorite soundtrack of the '90s.


"Days" Elvis Costello More doom and gloom from Until the End of the World.

  
"The First to Leave" Elvis Costello/The Brodsky Quartet Costello was on some death roll in the early '90s, wasn't he? A standout from The Juliet Letters, 1993's excellent chamber-pop experiment.


"What's Good" Lou Reed The crowning achievement of Until the End of the World's death triple.


"Cemetery Gates" The Smiths A bit of gallows humor to liven up the most morbid date ever.


"Dead" Pixies The messy, sonic flip side to resting in peace.


"El Paso" Marty Robbins Perhaps my earliest exposure to death. As a kid, I never wanted the song to end because it's a great song, and because, well, I knew exactly how it was going to end.


"John and Elvis Are Dead" George Michael Not quite as affecting as Elton John's "Empty Garden" (look, Ma, no tears), but right up there.

  
"Gone Again" Patti Smith Two years after the 1994 death of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith (who, incidentally, was her duet partner on Until the End of the World's "It Takes Time"), the Godmother of Punk returned with one of the most cathartic bracing rockers of her life, co-written with Fred.


"Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park" Cowboy Junkies The 1992 song (from Black Eyed Man) that presaged my current obsession with crime-time TV. I saw Cowboy Junkies at the Beacon Theater in New York City when the band was touring behind Black Eyed Man, and John F. Kennedy Jr. (R.I.P.) was in the audience, which makes this song, which Cowboy Junkies performed that night, even creepier to listen to today. (Pardon the lo-fi video below -- I couldn't find any studio versions on YouTube -- and just buy the album.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Can Florence + the Machine Survive Calvin Harris?

The last time I was in London, my friend Andy and I had a minor disagreement over Florence + the Machine. It was March of 2010, and Florence had just gotten into the UK Top 5 for the first time with "You've Got the Love." Andy insisted that Florence's remake was superior to the song that it covered, The Source featuring Candi Staton's "You Got the Love," which hit the UK Top 10 three times between 1991 and 2006 and was the last thing we heard at the end of the Sex and the City series finale in 2004. (I bought the Now Voyager Mix, the version used in SATC, during a trip to London in 1997 when it was in the Top 5 for the second time.)

I believe Andy's exact words were "Florence's version has more soul."

What?! Was he kidding me? More soulful than Candi Staton?

But the more I listened to the two versions back to back, the more I understood where Andy was coming from (though I still prefer Staton's more restrained approach, which makes her version sound more like a prayer and less like a love song). Despite, the newly grammatically correct title, Florence had a lot of soul. This Florence girl, I thought, must have some future ahead of her to even come close to out-souling someone like Staton, a gospel and disco legend who had a massive 1976 disco hit with "Young Hearts Run Free," and has been going strong ever since, though often too far below the radar.



This week I'm having another Florence + the Machine debate, this time with myself. The band, which is technically British singer-songwriter Florence Welch under an assumed group name, recently scored its first No. 1 UK single with "Spectrum," but it comes with strings attached. The version that's currently No. 1 for the second week isn't the original that appears on Ceremonials, Florence's second album, but a Calvin Harris remix re-titled "Spectrum (Say My Name)."

My first reaction was that Calvin Harris took the original track, slapped one of those generic dance beats onto its bottom, and watched it soar 103 notches to the top. So what? And then there was the similarity between the newly added subtitle and the title of Cheryl Cole's recent No. 1 single, "Call My Name," which was produced by Harris. I love Cole's song, but I never asked to hear Florence and the Machine in such a setting.

The more I listened to "Spectrum," though, alternating between the remix and the original, the more I started to get it. While the remix sacrifices some of that spacey, free-flowing thing that, for many, is a large part of Florence's charm, those very same qualities are why I like her music more than I love it. She's a great singer and certainly an interesting one, but her songs have a meandering shapelessness that causes my mind to wander, no matter how much yelping and shrieking she does.

Harris's remix tightens up the track to a brisk 3:38 (the original is 5:11), making it more palatable and far less "Dog Days Are Over." By extending the driving beat to the verses, he provides a dramatic musical counterpoint to Florence's lower-register vocals while building momentum throughout the entire song. Musically, Harris's work here is not as magical and inspired as his contribution to "We Found Love," his recent collaboration with Rihanna, but then, nothing he's done since, including his solo hit Feels So Close," is.

"Spectrum (Say My Name)" is more on par with "Missing," the 1994 Everything But the Girl track that Todd Terry remixed into an international smash. The success of Terry's reworking of "Missing" led Everything But the Girl down a new sonic path, which resulted in some of the duo's best work.

If having a No. 1 hit ends up having a similar effect on Welch's music, I'm all for it. The last thing pop needs is another dance diva, but for an artist as out there as Florence, sometimes the most daring thing you can do is get with the beat (without handing over your identity completely -- see Nicki Minaj). I was always disappointed that after Armand Van Helden's dance overhaul of Tori Amos's "Professional Widow," which sent that Boys for Pele track to UK No. 1 in 1996, Amos didn't choose to explore that path further.

Hopefully, Florence will. Now I'm even more excited to hear what she does next.


White Boys CAN Control It!: In Praise of Steve Winwood

Soul Men: (from left) Eric Burdon, John Mayall, Jimi Hendrix and Winwood (plus one, Carl Wayne of The Move)
"White people don't have soul."

Whoever launched that urban, suburban and country myth and spread it around the world, possibly deterring would-be blue-eyed soul singers everywhere, must have forgotten to forward the memo to the UK.

More than any other country in the world -- even the United States, birthplace of soul music, which began as negro spirituals during the slavery era, before blossoming into gospel, blues, jazz, R&B and later rap and hip hop -- the UK has a long, rich tradition of blue-eyed soul, thanks to some of the most soulful white folks ever to grab a mike and let 'er rip: Dusty Springfield, Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant, Elton John, Robert Palmer, Boy George, George Michael, Paul Young, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, Lisa Stansfield, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, and of course, the incomparable Steve Winwood.

Of all the great rock & roll masters of the '60s who were still alive and kicking in the '80s, Winwood, now 64, probably gets the least play today, despite his impressive pedigree. Along with being a member of three seminal bands of the '60 and early '70s (the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith), he had huge solo hits (including the No. 1 singles "Higher Love" and "Roll With It"), platinum albums, Grammy Awards, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as a member of Traffic). But even at his late-'80s commercial peak, Winwood always seemed to be overshadowed by two other Stevies: Wonder and Nicks.

Now I'd like to call for a re-evaluation of the great singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist and his contribution to rock and soul, which might be underestimated due to "Higher Love," the slick pop hit on which much of his mid-to-late '80s success was based. Strip away the glossy production, however, and what you've got are two of the greatest musical instruments ever: the voice of Chaka Khan (providing backing vocals) and, in the forefront, Winwood.

Although many hadn't even heard of Winwood before "Higher Love" made his voice a household sound, he'd already been kicking around forever by that point. It's hard to believe that he was still a teenager when he sang lead on the Spencer Davis Group's two 1966/67 Top 10 U.S. hits, "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'." At 18, he already had enough lived-in emotion in his house of soul to blow 23-year-old Chris Brown's away. Can you believe he was the same age then that Justin Bieber is now?


Some 14 years later, at age 32, he scored his first solo success with the No. 7 single "While You See a Chance." When I first saw the video on Casey Kasem's Saturdays-at-noon TV countdown show America's Top 10, I couldn't believe it: He wasn't a middle-aged black man but a young, clean-cut white guy who looked like he should have been conducting transactions at the local bank, or teaching Algebra. This was the new face of soul: a white singer who was born not in the U.S.A., but in the motherland.

"You know white boys can't control it," Boy George declared the following year on a track on Culture Club's Kissing to Be Clever album. Surely he wasn't singing about Steve Winwood.

5 Steve Winwood Definitions of Soulful

"While You See a Chance" (from 1980's Arc of a Diver)


"Spanish Dancer" (from Arc of a Dancer)


"Freedom Overspill" (from 1986's Back in the High Life)


"My Love's Leavin'" (from Back in the High Life)


"Roll with It" (from 1988's Roll with It)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Crying Time Again: Tear-Worthy Movie Scenes

"When was the last time you cried twice in one day?"

That was the rhetorical question that an Ohio congressman/gubernatorial candidate asked his aide on Veep after watching U.S. Vice-President Selina Myer (played by Emmy nominee Julia Louis-Dreyfus) break down two times in about as many minutes in the first-season finale of the HBO series, which I just finished watching on DVD.

My answer: today!

Don't worry, I haven't turned into a crybaby overnight. Real life still rarely brings out my crying side, and even if it did, nothing has happened that would activate my tear factor since I wrote yesterday's post. I haven't even listened to any of those tear-jerker songs all day. But I spoke -- wrote -- too soon when I said that movies rarely move me to tears. I cried several times just putting this post together.

Yesterday, I thought I was speaking the truth about movies and me, which is why I stopped at just two examples. Then today, an email arrived from my friend in L.A., the one I spoke about in the same post, and she mentioned the 2002 film About Schmidt. She said she saw it recently, and she thought about me.

Of course, she did. Everyone who knows me knows how much I loved that movie. That's when it hit me! I cried at the end of it, bawled like a baby, though not nearly as neatly as the one in the photo that accompanied yesterday's post. I've never been able to master the art of the single tear. But movies can movie me in much the same way that music does. Sometimes they evoke a memory of some incident that didn't necessarily make me cry at the time. Sometimes it's merely the suggestion of an idea that evokes a groundswell of emotion that ends in tears.

The more I thought about it, the more I remembered. I seem to cry at the end of a lot of movies, especially when the final shot is a close up of the lead actor's/actress's face with tears -- or a single tear -- streaming down it: Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station, Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons.

Whoever said, "It's not where you begin, it's where you end up" (or however that saying goes), must have loved movies. (Coming soon: a post on great movie endings, featuring The Heiress, The Hours, Being Julia, and more, perhaps with a little TV -- the Sex and the City episodes that closed with "In the Waiting Line," "Is That All There Is?," "If You Leave Me Now," "No Ordinary Love," "Point of View," and "You Got the Love" playing on the soundtrack -- thrown in.) Nicholson, Montenegro and Close were Oscar nominees who all deserved to win their categories in their respective years. (Sorry, Adrian Brody, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cher.)

When they shed tears, I did/do, too. (Toni Collette's tearful, wordless reaction to Haley Joel Osment's revelation in the car in The Sixth Sense, though not at the end that movie, always wrings a few tears, too.) I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.


Carrington doesn't end with Emma Thompson crying, but for its finale, she does something far more devastating. I'll have to find some way to flatter her that doesn't involve imitation, though. Coming in a year (1995) in which Thompson won plaudits -- and an Oscar nomination -- for Sense and Sensibility, Carrington stayed slightly below the radar, but it might be my favorite Thompson performance of all. In the final sequence, it's just her and a hunting rifle. She positions it facing upward, hunches over it, bows her head. The camera pans the grounds of the estate. The music swells, the music stops. Silence. A single shot rings out. Black.


In Trois Couleurs: Bleu, it's mostly about the music. Without it, the ending might not move me as much as it does, but the combination of Zbigniew Preisner's score and all the lovely images, including those achingly gorgeous close-ups of Juliette Binoche's face, always make me lose my composure -- and my tears. The first time I saw the movie in 1993, I had to sit alone in the theater for five minutes after the credits rolled because I didn't want to face the outside world with a tear-stained face. The closing montage was -- and is -- that effective.

The final scene in Interiors, Woody Allen's misunderstood 1978 masterpiece, gets to me, too. It has nothing to do with music (there is none), but rather the stark, minimalist setting, in which the three sisters take their spots by the window and look out at the ocean in which their mother recently drowned herself. "The water is so calm," Mary Beth Hurt observes. To which Diane Keaton replies, "Yes, it's very peaceful." Darkness.

Oh, my heart.


And finally, there's Virginia Madsen, who I don't think sheds a single tear in Sideways (Did she?), which, like About Schmidt, was directed by Alexander Payne, and which, unlike all the other movies mentioned above, features no heart-rending death scenes. When it came out in 2004, Sideways was even billed as a comedy! Still, every time I watch Madsen's character explain to Paul Giamatti's why she loves wine, describing the wine cycle like she's talking about the life cycle ("And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline...."), I lose it -- all over again. When I first saw the movie, I had just turned 35. I got it. Now, eight years later, I understand it even better.

She ends with a joke ("...and it tastes so fucking good"), but by then my emotional stability is long gone. It's a quiet, unfussy scene, but sometimes it's the simple things, the smallest of moments, that have the biggest effect, leave the greatest trace.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Moving Music: Songs That Make Me Cry Like a Baby

Here come those tears again. No, not the 1977 Jackson Browne song, the real stuff.

They've been coming out in squirts for a couple of days now, ever since I began writing a 2,000-word freelance essay on Elton John. Instead of whistling while I work, I've been listening to music, his music, remembering how much I've always loved his sad songs -- they say so much, and they're so so good. I've been crying, too. Not sobbing uncontrollably, or even weeping. Just tearing up. A little. On and off and on again.

It's fitting that I'm losing it over Elton John songs right now ("Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," "Curtains," "Sacrifice," and too many others to list) because he was actually the first singer to make me cry. The year was 1982, and the song was "Empty Garden," John's post-mortem tribute to his fallen friend John Lennon. I don't think I've been able to listen to the song since without getting a little wet around the eyes.


Some might call me a big cry baby, and once upon a time, they would have been right. Back when I was a kid, I'd cry over anything. I must have used up all my tears because I rarely cry over everyday life as an adult. Sometimes I dream that terrible things are happening to me, and I can't bring myself to the point of tears.

It's a recurring nightmare that's actually based on reality. One Sunday morning in 2001, I received an early wake-up call from the NYPD. They wanted me to come down to the Gramercy Park station to answer a few questions. When I arrived, they told me that one of my best friends, from whom I'd been estranged since we'd had a huge blowout over the 4th of July on Fire Island a month earlier, had been murdered in his apartment the Friday night before.

I wasn't surprised. He was probably the most reckless person I'd ever known, and although I wasn't expecting it to come to that, I always knew that it wouldn't end well for him. As the cop broke the sad news ("I'm afraid your friend is no longer with us," he said), I felt sorrow start to well in my eyes. But my internal faucet must have been malfunctioning. Nothing actually came out.

I panicked because I knew I was a suspect (along with anyone linked to the phone numbers in his mobile phone, which was how the police had been able to contact me), and I'd seen enough police procedurals to know that the friend who doesn't cry always gets the blame -- at least, initially. Even without any tears on my part, the cop must have thought that I seemed appropriately upset, which was an understatement for what was going on inside of me. I've never really gotten over my friend's death, nor have I, to this day, shed a tear over it.

"Jeremy, when was the last time you cried?" a friend asked me several years ago when she was visiting me in Buenos Aires from L.A. "I can't imagine you ever crying." Does she know me or what? I thought to myself. I can count on one hand, with a few fingers left over, the number of times that a real-life incident has made me cry since I reached adulthood. Movies move me but with a few exceptions (Trois Couleurs: Bleu and Interiors are the two that immediately come to mind), rarely to tears, and aside from those creepily effective voice overs at the end of each episode of Desperate Housewives, nothing on TV does either.

Oh, but when I hear music! I should have told my visiting friend that I probably cried the last time I listened to a good tear-jerker, but I was too busy thinking about the lost friend I never cried for, and those devastating dreams in which I never weep. Maybe what all of life's saddest moments need is a really moving soundtrack because songs always seem to take me there. Here are some of the repeat offenders.

"Only Human" Dina Carroll If you've ever had the displeasure of watching someone you love's rear view as he, or she, walks out of your life, you know exactly what Dina's talking about.


"Something So Right" Annie Lennox In Lennox's hands, Paul Simon's song about withholding emotions always makes me lose control of mine.


"Making Love" Roberta Flack Aside from it being the first time I ever saw two men kiss onscreen, I can remember very little about the 1982 film Making Love other than Kate Jackson without her Charlie's Angels halo, a post-Clash of the Titans/pre-L.A. Law Harry Hamlin, and Roberta Flack, killing me softly with her song, the movie's love theme.


"The Windows of the World" Dionne Warwick I'm generally immune to the emotional manipulation of your average state-of-the-world pop song (love "We Are the World," wouldn't shed a teardrop over it), but then, Warwick is not your average singer.


"I Still Love You" Terence Trent D'Arby Here's the thing: I rarely mourn the end of a romance with tears -- until a great song comes on that makes it impossible for me to think of anything else.


"Immigrant" Sade I once spent part of a London-to-Paris train ride listening to this song from Sade's Lover Rock (the perfect soundtrack for an an album-long crying fit, if ever there was one), trying to hide the tears running down my face. Why? It's a gorgeous song, and this sort of thing still happens, you know.


"Wouldn't That Be Fine" Nanci Griffith I never cry over spilt milk, but what ifs are such an emotional landmine.


"Long Distance Lover" The O'Jays The song that was playing on repeat on my Discman (yes, for me, this was still pre-iPod) as I walked to the police station that sunny Sunday morning in August 2001.


Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major (The Second Movement) Would The King's Speech have won last year's Best Picture Oscar without it?

Friday, July 20, 2012

What Women Want: Should I Believe Anything I See on "The Real Housewives of New York City"?

I thought I'd learned pretty much all there is to know about women (on a strictly platonic level, naturally)?

I grew up surrounded by them: my mother, my sister, my female friends, girl singers, and women on TV and in movies. For most of my life, women have been the foundation, my rock, my solid ground when I've been veering off-path and into quicksand, trying to maintain my balance and some semblance of order in my wobbly life. In short, women rock -- on and offstage.

But I'm beginning to wonder, what do I really know about the fairer sex? After all, I'm a man. Gay though I may be, I'm still from Mars, far from the planet, Venus, that women call home. And we always treat visitors differently than we do those living under the same roof. Do my girlfriends treat me differently than they treat each other? Does anyone ever really know what it feels like for a girl unless you're one, too?

These are the thoughts and questions that run through my mind as I watch The Real Housewives of New York City. For years, I'd avoided watching the show, until one recent night I slipped and caught a 2010 season 3 episode on Bangkok's Sony Channel (as with so many syndicated programs on the network, it's running two years behind). It was like a multiple-train wreck. I couldn't turn away.

It would be so easy to dedicate an entire blog post to each one of the housewives -- except for maybe Kelly, who must have gotten on the show because she's hot and looks like a poor woman's Denise Richards -- but in my head, for some reason, I always come back to LuAnn. She's beautiful, she's sexy, she's got a great voice (speaking, not singing), and she must be the most infuriating woman on Planet Housewife. Could this possibly be what female friendship is all about?

In the episodes that I've seen, LuAnn always seems to be berating someone, in the most passive-aggressive way possible, or carping behind someone's back, for not living up to her social standards. In one B-roll segment, the now-departed Bethenny (my favorite, because she at least owns her crazy) complained that LuAnn hadn't paid her way for some surfing excursion they went on together. LuAnn was livid, not so much over the money (in her mind, since it was Bethenny's idea to go surfing, or whatever, Bethenny deserved to be stuck with the tab), but because she didn't want to feel like every time she turns her back, Bethenny will be saying something "snarky" (such a New York city word!) about her.

But isn't that what they all do? I swear, I'll be watching a perfectly pleasant scene where two or more women are playing nice and semi-bonding, then they'll cut to the B roll, and the claws come out. I watch and wonder: Are these women just a special breed of petty and disloyal, or is this what women do? When they look each other up and down, are they just looking for something to criticize? What do they want: real human friendships, or loyal subjects and ego boosts?

Male friendships, even ones between gay men, are different. We simply don't spend so much time thinking -- or talking about each other. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe I don't know my male friends at all. It's possible that every time I walk out of a room, they start aiming the daggers right at my back. But as far as I know, men don't really size each other up unless they're going to have sex.

In the history of male friendship, I can't imagine that one guy has ever said to another, "But I just want to know that when I leave the room you aren't saying snarky things about me?" I don't really want people saying terrible things about me when I exit stage left, but I'm certainly not going to lose any sleep over it, or spend an entire hour-long episode of my life dwelling on it, or start crossing people off the guest list at the door to my circle of friends.

Then there was LuAnn vs. Ramona. It really should have been LuAnn vs. Ramona's husband Mario, but why go after the guy when you can bitch at another woman? LuAnn, who apparently fancies herself a countess of some sort, got upset with Mario because at some event, he made an under-his-breath crack about her, calling her a "countless." LuAnn didn't find it funny, and neither did I. Not because it's offensive, but because it's dumb. I couldn't imagine giving such a bad joke a second thought, but LuAnn harped on it for an entire episode. Rather than taking it up with Mario immediately, she picked a fight with Ramona well after the fact... on a yacht. Over "countless"!

What did she expect the woman to do? Call up her husband and scold him for hurting the feelings of her "friend"? And I have to ask, if the wife of a male friend had made such a crack, would she have fretted to her male friend, or gone straight to the source, the woman? Something tells me there would have been a catfight of epic proportions, which would have been a lot more enjoyable than the scenes that played out between two middle-aged women on a yacht who were acting like they were back in fourth grade.

I'm not saying that men make better friends. Au contraire, I actually think that women do -- particularly if you're a guy like me, gay, and therefore capable of having a relationship with them that's uncomplicated by sex and sexuality. Women feel more, they react more, in good times and in bad. When my chips are down, I want to be surrounded by my female friends. And when they are up, too.

But can women say the same thing about each other? "We hate it when our friends become successful," Morrissey once sang (on a song that I never particularly loved.) Well, I wonder, was he was singing about how women are with other women? If Bethenny is a Morrissey fan, I'm sure she thinks of Jill whenever she hears the song.

When my female friends complain to me about each other, the gripe, or explanation for whatever misdeed, I probably hear most is "She's just jealous. She can't handle it when things are going well for me" -- and sometimes I think they might be right. That said, I've never gotten the impression from any of my female friends that "misery loves company" in relation to me. Does that apply, though, when they're dealing with each other?

If I'm to believe everything I see on The Real Housewives of New York City, with women, a friend who has a friend in need is a friend indeed. But give her a cute, successful mate when her friends' romantic lives are either falling apart, stagnant, or non-existent, or put her slamming body in a skimpy bikini, and she should just consider herself a friend who's out in the cold, with everyone whispering about her on the other side of the door.

Whether this is based on reality (and not just expert editing and an extremely well-acted script), I'll let women work it out amongst themselves. Like most of the husbands on The Real Housewives of New York City, I'm staying out of it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What's Her Age Again?: Why A-List Hollywood Actresses Are Getting Younger Every Decade

The other day while I was watching the American Film Institute's 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award tribute to Shirley MacLaine, I couldn't get a certain number out of my head.

78!

No, that's not the number of times the Universal Channel will probably air the show in Bangkok before finally giving it a rest. It's the number I came up with when a voice over revealed MacLaine's birthday (April 24, 1934) early in the show, and I did the math. How could she possibly be only 78?

It's not that she looks older, and the year of her film debut (1955, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry) would certainly put her in that chronological vicinity, but wasn't she already middle-aged, like, a lifetime ago? Did we all rejoin her in one of her next lives, already in progress?

The first time I ever saw MacLaine, playing an ex-ballerina stage mom in 1977's The Turning Point, which I watched on HBO in 1978, she was already middle-aged. At the time of the film's release, she was 43, the age Jennifer Aniston is now, but could anyone imagine Jenn (who, by the way, played MacLaine's granddaughter in 2005's Rumor Has It...) as the mother of an actress the same age, 20, that Leslie Browne (who played MacLaine's daughter in The Turning Point and earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination) was then?

MacLaine was on the cusp of turning 35 when Sweet Charity was released in 1969, and just eight years later, she was already typecast as mom, a role for which she would finally win an Oscar six years later, at age 49, playing the mother of Debra Winger, then 28, in Terms of Endearment. Does anyone think that by 2019, Reese Witherspoon, now 36, will be playing the mother of a 20ish actress?

Years ago, when I first watched the Katharine Hepburn movie Summertime, which was released in 1955 when Hepburn was 48, I remember feeling a twinge of pity for Hepburn's character, because, well, who wants to be almost 50 and all alone in the city of love? It gave the film a certain pathos that I don't think director David Lean necessarily intended it to have. (What did I know? The closer I get to being 48 myself, the less I focus on her age and the more I think, Lucky girl! She's in Venice!)

If Julianne Moore were to be cast in a similar role today, anyone who doesn't know her age (51) could conceivably peg her as 35, the age she played eight years ago in Laws of Attraction. Men have always gone for leading ladies who are young enough to be their daughters, which might be why it was such a shocker to recently see Robert DeNiro, 68, in bed with Jacki Weaver, who's 65 and looks it, in the trailer for The Silver Linings Playbook. Now the leading ladies are going younger, too.

In 2009's The Proposal, Sandra Bullock, then 45, fell for Ryan Reynolds, then 33, and their age difference wasn't even written into the script. Interestingly, that same year she played the foster/adoptive mother of a high school football star and won an Oscar for her efforts. But would anyone cast her as the mother of Carey Mulligan, who, at 27, is certainly young enough to be her daughter? They'd probably give that role to Melissa Leo, 51 -- who already won her Oscar for being mom to Mark Wahlberg, 41, and Christian Bale, 38 -- or some other actress who doesn't have an eternally youthful image to uphold (see Hollywood's B-to-Z list).

Actresses have long complained about how few roles there are for women over 40, but I'd say that part of it might be because so few of them are passing for women over 40. You can pin some of the blame on changing fashion, too much plastic surgery, too much Botox, and too many yoga and Pilates sessions. But I'd put even more of it on the unwillingness of many A-list actresses of a certain caliber to go gently into that good dusk, the golden middle age -- especially when grown children are involved.

It might be fashionable today to play the cougar, the older woman bedding the younger guy -- a role assumed in recent years by the likes of Cate Blanchett (in Notes on a Scandal), Uma Thurman (in Prime), Kate Winslet (in The Reader), Catherine Zeta-Jones (in The Rebound) and Michelle Williams (in My Week with Marilyn) -- but the actress who is robbing the cradle, so to speak, is generally perceived as being hot enough to land a guy any age, and if she's playing a character with kids, they're usually well under driving age.

When French actress Simone Signoret fell for younger guy Laurence Harvey in 1959's Room at the Top (winning a well-deserved Oscar in the process), not only was she presented as being kind of over the hill and desperate, a thoroughly tragic figure, but at 38, she was only some seven years older than Laurence! Would any director today dream of casting Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, 36, and Ryan Gosling, 31, in a remake? Would Cotillard take the "older-woman" role opposite an actor so close to her age? If Steven Soderbergh were directing, probably, but would anyone buy it?

Later this year, Kristin Scott Thomas, 51, whose 2012 leading men have included Robert Pattinson, 26, and Ewan McGregor, 41, will add Gosling to her list in Only God Forgives, Gosling's reunion with Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn. "At my ripe old age, I'm getting these fantastic leading men," Scott Thomas told me earlier this year when I interviewed her in Bangkok, where the film was shot. But, she added, "I am playing his mother." Hopefully, she'll be handsomely rewarded -- with an Oscar nomination? -- for acting her age.

Charlize Theron, 36, won plaudits (but no Oscar nod) for acting her age last year in Young Adult. Well, kind of. Although her character, Mavis Gary was 37 years old and competing with a grown woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, 37) for the attention of her college boyfriend, Mavis was a childless former beauty queen who could have passed for 29 even if she hadn't been acting more like 19. This year, in Snow White and the Huntsmen (which could almost be seen as an allegory for aging in Holllywood), Theron's onscreen competition is Kristen Stewart, 22.

Sarah Jessica Parker did entire episodes of Sex and the City about competing with twentysomething women, but she's still acting like she's not that much older than one. Over the course of six seasons on Sex and the City, she proved herself capable of playing more than light romantic comedy, yet she can't seem to get out of the city and out of her thirties. She's 47 now. It's time for her to stretch. She'll never be Meryl Streep, but I'd hate to see her turn into Meg Ryan, evidence of the damage that trying to be forever young can do to a career -- and a face.

Even Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth. Instead he stumbled upon Florida, a state now best known for being the final resting place for retirees. Draw your own conclusions.